Sloganeering Steers U.S. Policy Awry

Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington

The bumper sticker syndrome has returned to foreign policy with a vengeance. Taking its name from President Clinton's shamefaced confession in 1994 that his Russia policy had not "come up with the right bumper sticker," this affliction seeks to reduce the complexities of international relations to a catchy slogan.

The syndrome is highly contagious. Professors, generals and economists have been feverishly marketing their pet theories, from global anarchy to the revolution in military affairs, as the latest all-explaining nostrum. The most recent arrival, something called the "clash of civilizations," purports to explain the entire future course of world affairs as a sort of Pat Buchanan-style cultural war on a grand scale. Clinton's incoming team should beware. While fun to discuss, such cleverness has limited operational value.

It is not that big ideas have no place in foreign policy. Far from it. Vision and strategic insight are vital components. But, as the distinguished columnist James Reston once observed, it is normally the failure to manage practical issues that lands the U.S. in trouble.

Reston was talking about Vietnam, where an obsession with the big picture prevented policymakers from recognizing the day-to-day makings of the disaster. A more recent example is Bosnia. Here, U.S. fear of an uncontrolled disintegration of the Soviet Union first caused the U.S. to advocate Yugoslavia's continued territorial integrity. Then, as the Soviet concern eased, the U.S. moved too fast in 1992 to recognize Bosnian independence. The big picture got tragically in the way of sensible decision making.

In Bosnia, the damage has been done. Elsewhere, however, there are plenty of other instances where misapplied macro-analysis is impeding practical diplomacy. Take Turkey, for example. Here, a classic opportunity for some imaginative U.S. deal-making is going to waste.

The problem arises out of Turkey's association with the Middle East where, arguably, the U.S. faces an all-out challenge to its vital interests in Israel and the oil-producing states. In this context, Turkey's traditions as a secular Muslim democracy are much valued by the U.S. When Turkey's position as a gateway to Central Asia is added, it is hardly surprising that Washington calls Ankara a "strategic partner."

This is all very well. The error arises when this thinking is extrapolated to another context, namely Turkey's hostile relations with Greece and Cyprus. In both cases, Turkey is pursuing policies that offend the rest of the world, including the U.S. The resultant instability--the CIA has warned of the danger of a Turkish war this year--directly undermines U.S. interests.

The issues are relatively straightforward. Against Greece, Turkey persists in asserting territorial claims in the Aegean that have no standing in international law. All too often, Turkey has resorted to provocative brinkmanship, like, as happened last week, sending submarines through Greek territorial waters. Far from advancing Turkey's cause, these actions simply poison Turkey's relations with Europe.

Similar doubts apply about the rationality of Turkey's approach to Cyprus. Whatever the reasoning behind Turkey's 1974 invasion, it makes no sense to continue the occupation in the teeth of unanimous international condemnation and at an annual cost of $300 million.

The frustrating aspect is that both problems are tantalizingly near settlement. In Athens and Nicosia there are sensible, nonnationalist governments offering reasonable terms that meet the large part of Turkey's needs. The missing element is political will in Ankara.

The obvious way forward is for the U.S., as Turkey's firmest international friend, to administer a discreet but firm nudge, advising that intransigence in these matters is counterproductive. A small enough idea, but one that has been sadly absent from State Department thinking. Why? Because of the pernicious influence of the bumper sticker, in this case the "strategic partner" concept. This is invoked to rule out the slightest pressure on Turkey, no matter how beneficial it might be.

Now this rigidity has U.S. diplomacy in a jam. Earlier this week, the State Department issued a statement condemning Cyprus' decision to acquire an air defense missile system. In deference to Turkey, the statement ineptly omitted any reference to the Turkish threat to Cyprus. Turkish ministers took this kid-gloves treatment as permission to threaten a new invasion, forcing State to publicly berate its "strategic partner." Thus this weekend's special diplomatic mission to Turkey, Cyprus and Greece has gotten off on completely the wrong foot.

In her confirmation testimony Wednesday, Madeleine Albright spoke of giving high priority to Cyprus. To be successful, she needs to cleanse the administration of all bumper stickers. If she can inject common sense on a small issue, the big issues will follow.

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