Dangers of Garbled Foreign Policy Messages

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Yesterday I read Ralph Raico’s informative piece on the origins of World War I. Politicians made some bluffs that were called, and that was a contributing factor. I retained that but it didn’t really hit home until just now when I read a news item about Obama’s UN speech in which he zagged more to a hard line on Iran, after previously zigging to a softer line. In addition, yesterday the Iranians zigged to a harder line in response to some other previous zig-zag in the West. Also we learned that Romney said one thing in private about a Palestinian state that is the opposite of what he says in public, and this is a reminder that such garbling and lying are par for the course for politicians. They have to say different things to different audiences to do politics. The point I’m making is that in foreign policy and war-making, with war being part of politics, this message garbling is dangerous.

I more or less have been discounting the latest rounds of rhetoric because Obama is running for re-election and he can’t look soft on Iran. Yet in such rhetoric we have possible misinterpretations on all sides (U.S., Israel, Iran, Russia, etc) and possible large-scale wars can arise because of it. Everyone has to interpret remarks against the need of each politician to satisfy domestic voices and to get votes. There may or may not be private communications that explain real intentions, but because everyone is attempting to bluff, threaten, deter and outlast everyone else, such private communications aren’t likely to explain real intentions. So we have both public and private messages, plus actions like fleets traversing trouble spots, and we get garbling of messages. No one knows for sure what a message really means. Everyone is busy trying to figure out what the other sides are saying.

Is this any way to run a world? Raico says that several states were at odds with one another and staked out inflexible positions, thinking some of the others would back down. They didn’t, and World War I started. Germany didn’t plan it or start it. The “shared responsibility” he refers to came about as part of a process of mutually inconsistent positions that the different parties didn’t believe. Opposing sides each thought they could deter the other side, but they didn’t. Their words and actions were garbled. They didn’t convey what they’d actually do, which was go to war.

The current confrontation, saber-rattling, sanctions, sabotage and all the rest are as dangerous as pre-World War I, maybe moreso. Romney would pull the trigger, or so he’d have us believe, but this is one area where he’s been consistent and so he comes across as totally irresponsible. Obama is gripping the gun and every so often he pulls back the hammer. Garbling intentionally can be part of his game to gain room for action.

6:06 pm on September 25, 2012