Is ‘Don’t do stupid Shit’ a Valid Foreign Policy?

‘Mind the Gap’ is a biweekly column focusing on the link and at times lack thereof between academia and policy-making in international relations.

President Obama’s foreign policy strategy has long suffered complaints of lacking an overall direction.  From the Cairo Speech’s optimism, to an entirely more modest goal of hitting “singles and doubles,” the Obama administration has yet to lock down a brand for its foreign policy.  But at a media briefing aboard Air Force 1, the president offered one of the catchiest summaries of his foreign policy: “don’t do stupid shit.”

The president’s rebranding of his foreign policy strategy is hardly surprising: he has gone through several foreign policy catchphrases throughout the administration’s tenure in the Oval Office.  This constant effort to market an “Obama doctrine” reflects on the negative perceptions of the president’s foreign policy.  “Don’t do stupid shit” is only the most recent of these catchphrases.

But is “don’t do stupid shit” even a viable strategy?  Though certain news outlets censored the phrase to the generically nonthreatening “don’t do stupid stuff,” the folksy tone itself is not a problem.  “Talk softly but carry a big stick” is similarly pithy and memorable, and set an effective guideline for foreign policy that is repeated aphoristically to this day.  The real problem is in the substance of the quote.

Image courtesy of Joe Crimmings © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Joe Crimmings © 2008, some rights reserved.

What is strategy?  The job of the strategist is to take inputs of information—all the conditions, parameters, possible results, and stated goals—and output the best course of action.  In this case, a strategy is a consistent manner of matching the situation on the ground and the administrations goals to the most effective action to take.

But as much as we would love our policy-makers to be omniscient, they are not.  At a certain point, stupid shit is inevitable.  Unlike the academics which love to correct them, policy-makers don’t have the luxury of time.  The gears of the ivory tower work slowly: academic articles which respond to events in the policy world can take years to publish.  Policy makers need to make speedy and actionable decisions.  While one could make an argument that policy makers ought to spend more time consulting academics and experts (and many do), that kind of consultation still increases reaction time, which comes at a cost.

So clearly, mistakes will be made in the foreign policy establishment.  It comes from working quickly.  It can be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the long-term effects of a policy.  The third- and fourth-order consequences of foreign policy decisions are difficult to determine in the most luxurious of time conditions.  An overabundance of intervening variables obfuscates the indirect outcomes of any single event or policy in the international political arena.

This is why some IR scholars argue that foreign policy decision makers operate with “bounded rationality.”  Though policy-makers argue that policy-makers weigh all the possible foreign policy options, in reality they cannot consider all the possibilities.  An ideally rational decision maker would consider every possibility, which is why bounded rationality is a more plausible explanation for how decisions are made.  This usually works, but it does mean that on occasion mistakes will be made.  In other words, stupid shit will happen.

But to move away from abstract considerations, has a policy of “no stupid shit” been successful?  Let’s look at the Obama’s foreign policy record.  The record is a controversial one, to be sure: the president has received much criticism from both sides of the aisle in the United States.  So what are some examples of poor foreign policy decision making?

A prime example would be the “red line” in Syria.  When President Obama said that chemical weapon use in Syria would be a red line, though he did not clearly outline the consequences of that action.  However, when the President then asked Congress to authorise a military strike, it appeared that he was attempting to back down (while placing the blame on Congress).  For one thing, it made the United States lose credibility—it provides an example of the United States not following through on a threat.  It also provided a chance for Vladimir Putin to swoop in and gain credibility as an international negotiator.  That was stupid policy making.

A similar credibility problem occurred with the much vaunted “Pivot to Asia,” a proposed rebalance of American foreign policy priorities.  There have been minor redeployments: 2,500 Marines rotated to Darwin, Australia as well as littoral combat ships to Singapore.  But even if minor military assets have been deployed towards Asia, it has not been matched with diplomatic efforts, despite diplomatic assets being more fungible than military ones.  It makes sense that events have forced the president to direct a majority of attention towards the Middle East and the Ukraine, but the president has nevertheless insisted that Asia remains a foreign policy priority. This shows a lack of foreign policy concentration and is also poor foreign policy in of itself.

Of course, the Obama administration is hardly the first to do stupid shit when it comes to foreign policy.  The Bush administration was famous for it—when the Bush administration made clear its intention in invade Iraq, many of the top IR scholars took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times warning Bush of the stupidity of the endeavour, to no avail.

The point is that in foreign policy making, stupid shit is an inevitability.  It sounds like President Obama is trying to articulate a similar policy to the “doubles and singles” approach: he will do what he can, where he can, and try not to make things worse.  But to pretend that mistakes will not occur is hopelessly optimistic.