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J U LY - A U G U S T 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
policy by headquarters officials, who are a million miles from
the front lines, the entire policy machine loses the long-term
view and is knocked off kilter.
In the securo-diplomats’ world, democracy and human
rights are for wimps: it’s “smarter” to get results quickly, be
testosterone-driven and tough. But the real, five-dimensional
foreign policy environment seldom cooperates for long. And
that is why the securo-diplomats lost traction so embarrass-
ingly during the Arab Spring. Torturers with whom they had
closely collaborated in running the global rendition machine
were being replaced by nascent demo-
crats they couldn’t stomach, just because
some were Islamists. The securo-diplo-
mats perversely saw the stirrings of dem-
ocratic legitimacy not as a core value
driving foreign policy and something to
be celebrated, but as a threat to stability.
The ripples of laughter from Beijing and
Moscow must have been deafening.
Our Thugs, Right or Wrong
The securo-diplomats’ approach to
foreign policy follows the delightful
phrase attributed to FDR in describing Nicaraguan President
Anastasio Somoza Garcia: “He may be a thug, but he’s our
thug.” (FDR didn’t say “thug,” of course, but this is a family
Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns was work-
ing against them in North Africa: the longer the thug clings to
power, the more his people despise him (it’s always a man),
unite against him (and you) and take more extreme measures
to remove him from power. And as soon as Mr. Thug and his
support group disappear, you are left with some angry ene-
mies in the territory and have to play a frantic game of catch-
up. In the worst-case scenario, you confront a failed state and
spend years trying to re-establish any kind of normalcy. Just
look at Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
20 years after those states collapsed.
The Arab Spring has proved again the old adage that au-
tocracies’ lack of democratic legitimacy makes them inher-
ently unstable. Democracies might look messy and fragile at
times, and they do infuriating things (such as electing gov-
ernments we don’t like). But they are less prone to outright
Their messiness comes from the growing pains associated
with creating accountable, popular governments that tackle
social and political demons, unlike repressive autocracies such
as Algeria that ensure such grievances fester. Respecting
democracy and human rights may create short-term vulner-
abilities, but it builds long-term strength. So the “moral” pol-
icy becomes the sound, practical policy, too.
Consider the most durable Middle Eastern regimes to
have weathered the current turmoil: Jordan and Morocco.
Two years ago, they would probably have been on any securo-
diplomat’s list of vulnerable states. But the long-term foreign
policy analyst would have seen them as “work-in-progress”
Neither country is perfect —not by a long shot. But in the
long term, both are also more likely to be bastions of democ-
racy standing against terrorism than the brutal autocracies —
e.g., Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — that function as ex-
tremism’s recruiting agents. Plus, the good news about dem-
ocratic legitimacy is that it’s relatively easy
to identify and measure.
In Search of
Overarching Principles
So how do we determine whether our
policy toward a particular issue or coun-
try has lurched dangerously into short-
termism? First off, we need to be wary of
people who repeatedly talk about “the
national interest,” a term usually em-
ployed by those who want to sound clever
about policy but rarely look below the
surface or over the horizon. Because the term can mean any-
thing to anyone, it is useless when trying to craft effective,
long-term policy within a shifting, multipolar environment.
Successful foreign policymaking needs overarching prin-
ciples, a vision and a mission statement that sets out clearly its
real purpose. This not only builds international credibility,
but improves internal communication and spreads risk expo-
sure by reducing inconsistency. That way, what you’re doing
on Syria bears a passing resemblance to what you’re doing on
Algeria. And it is not a naïve, soft option: it may ultimately
mean making difficult decisions like finding an alternative to
Bahrain for your Persian Gulf fleet. That requires bold lead-
A long-term view also means focusing on the totality of an
engagement with the country or region in question — not
just governments, ruling parties or elites. (As a corollary,
human rights and governance must therefore be given equal
— and top — billing within policymaking, not relegated to
walk-on roles.) Ask yourself how much stronger would the
opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime be
now if foreign governments had invested more time and at-
tention in forging ties to the Syrian diaspora
the Arab
Spring. Will policymakers wait until Algeria or Saudi Arabia
teeters before they follow suit there?
Visibility also matters. Diplomats should be seen publicly
with the vulnerable and oppressed, as U.S. Ambassador
Robert Ford bravely was in Syria and my former colleague
Craig Murray was in Uzbekistan a decade ago. (See Murray’s
article about that experience, “The Folly of a Short-TermAp-
Securo-diplomats assess
problems through a
narrow, short-term
national security lens.