This article originally appeared on The Exchange.
Solutions to today’s unconventional conflicts are murky. Public diplomacy is not the cure-all, but it is underused.
Public diplomacy under the Obama administration has evolved from a rarely understood bit of statecraft to a priority in foreign policy. Particularly since the Arab Spring began in 2010, Obama has been known as the “soft power president,” largely deferring to diplomatic overtures that seek to avoid protracted military engagement in any form. But as the ongoing Syrian and Egyptian crises illustrate, unconventional conflicts featuring intransigent leaders are where American diplomacy, still weak in the Middle East, is least effective. Consequently, the U.S. is poised to rely almost solely on its less nimble military to intervene, and we must question whether we are adequately prepared to face such conflict… and whether we want to.
Today’s unconventional conflicts (revolutions, nationalistic, ethnic, and religious) have come to dominate our strategic reality. They are asymmetrical (the resources of the parties differ significantly, and each attempts to exploit the weaknesses of the other), rooted in the information age, and, coupled with noncombat missions, represent the majority of conflict the U.S. expects to police in the future. Public diplomacy would seem perfectly suited for such an occasion, particularly given the military’s middling effectiveness in conflict of this type.
But consider that Egypt is no longer particularly reliant on U.S. aid, given pledges by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to extend loans to the country to head off Iran. Also take note that Syria, while nominally aided by Russia, is unlikely to yield in the face of ambiguous U.S. red lines and our borderline nonexistent public messaging. Worse, any strike on Syria, no matter how timid, could coalesce the non-violent periphery around President Assad and complicate his inevitable deposition, as has already occurred in the Syrian blogosphere. The narrative of Syria “fighting for its life against its Western oppressors” has already been disseminated outside the reach of U.S. diplomatic arms. In fact, when diplomacy has been presented as a viable option, it was publicly deemed weak and the least salable step available.
Public diplomacy and military action, soft and hard power, are ideally meant to complement each other. But when the former is abandoned because we have not constructed a coherent messaging blueprint, and the latter is stunted by the “strategic vs. tactical strike” argument in Syria, neither avenue by itself is palatable regardless of how desperately we wish to avoid further Middle Eastern conflict and a potential foretelling of a war with Iran. The U.S. is hamstrung by its inability to take action relative to its displeasure without abandoning what little foothold it has left in the region, and the perils of that globalization stand to make us even less proactive rhetorically and militarily in decades to come.
Put simply: we don’t know whether a military strike on Syria would be a one-off meant to deter future use of chemical weapons or whether we’re interested in turning the tide of the civil war, we don’t know what to make of Egypt’s newly deposed Muslim Brotherhood or its minister of defense General Sisi, and none of this matters unless we recognize the new, complicated relationships that have arisen out of this next phase of the Arab Spring. In Syria, we must focus on weakening the regime’s air defenses through a combination of missile strikes and no-fly zones, in concert with a coalition to enhance the weapons and intelligence capability of the Free Syrian Army and restore the voices of moderate rebel leaders that have been silenced in recent months. In Egypt, we should recognize that while suspending aid to the country seems moral and sensible, letting the country continue on its self-destructive path might be the only viable option so as to avoid a Russia or China taking over as its lead weapons supplier, or worse. Public diplomacy has long been harder to implement in Egypt than elsewhere, and even our stepped-up characterization of the country’s “second chance” at democracy has not been enough to quell the unrest. An integrated approach, comprising short-term mediated (government-to-citizen engagement overseen by a third party) and longer-term nation branding and relational public diplomacy, could be warranted.
Public diplomacy has never been expected to cure the all world’s ills, just as military involvement alone is not a worthy substitute for a sound strategy. As Egypt buckles under the weight of its second tenuous administration in as many years, and as the U.S. threatens strikes on Syria, we must enter these latest conflicts with even greater resolve than that which kept us largely out of harm’s way in Libya. Ceasing Egyptian aid, a largely symbolic gesture by this point, will not help us export our public diplomacy back to a wavering ally, nor can we hope that it will instantaneously give us leverage in this national security problem, an expectation that is all too frequent. Likewise, striking Syria with abandon and little future strategy will only placate a vocal domestic minority and have essentially no effect on the Assad regime at large. Finding out exactly where our moral objections lie in these cases is a start, but articulating a sound communications plan and our expected returns through intervention has not yet occurred, a shocking reality at least in Syria’s case given the conflict’s steady escalation.
The way forward in these unconventional conflicts is murky. What is clear is that our brand of diplomacy so haphazardly nurtured over the past decade must undergo another renovation to avoid subsequent periods of irrelevance, just as our military should be retooled to fight smaller-scale incidents. Expecting the world of the military, including a sound proportionate response, in these modern incursions for which it is not built is not wise. Expecting the world of our diplomats in the interconnected morass that is Middle Eastern diplomacy without relationship equity or inherent leverage, and shoving them aside when results do not instantly appear, is worse. We, sadly, have begun doing both even in the face of public opposition to engagement.
The first two big tests of the Obama administration are here, and a limited strike on Syria has become a moral imperative. But in this prolonged period of self-imposed uncertainty, we must be prepared for varying degrees of success, and accept that neither diplomacy nor the military should be used without deeper commitments in mind. At the least, our delusions of grandeur in these conflicts should be permanently dispelled.
photo credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy (elhamalawy), Flickr Creative Commons