A Lesson in Diplomacy

A Lesson in Diplomacy

This article was originally published on March 18, 2003.


Back in the late 1980s, Condoleezza Rice–then just a lowly associate professor–taught one of the best courses I took as a Stanford undergraduate. Although she called it “The Role of the Military in Politics,” the most memorable class sessions involved a lengthy crisis simulation exercise designed to teach the fine art of avoiding war. She split the large class into several independent groups, with each group subdivided into key Washington foreign policy roles. My group had a President, a Vice President, a National Security Adviser, a Defense Secretary, a CIA Director, Joint Chiefs and several members of Congress. I was the Secretary of State. Our mission: to resolve an emerging international crisis peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. Sound familiar?

Professor Rice’s simulation presciently challenged us to contain an impending civil war in Yugoslavia that, if inflamed, threatened to spill over into neighboring countries. All of the groups tried to achieve the same outcome–a peaceful resolution of the conflict–but few succeeded. Rather, a group’s result depended on the strategies it used to pursue the goal. As we navigated the treacherous waters of (simulated) international diplomacy, our group learned three valuable lessons that Professor Rice’s current colleagues in the Bush Administration seem to be neglecting.

Rhetoric matters: During the simulation, I sent an unintentionally condescending message to the Greek government. Only by apologizing immediately and profusely did I manage to salvage our diplomatic mission. If even accidental slights have unfortunate consequences, how much harm can come from intentionally inflammatory rhetoric? When George W. Bush used the word “crusade” to describe US antiterrorism efforts, it unwittingly evoked images of Christian warriors marching to rescue the Holy Land from Islamic infidels. Yet rather than retreating from this rhetorical stance, Bush has fanned the flames by describing the current conflict with Iraq in biblical terms, repeatedly invoking the Christian God and calling Iraq an agent of evil. If Bush actually wants to fuel a “clash of civilizations,” this is a good way to start. As then-candidate Bush himself said in the second presidential debate, “if we’re an arrogant nation, [other countries] will view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.” Which brings us to lesson number two…

Seek international support: In our simulation, the most successful groups immediately reached out to allies and to international organizations in order to build a consensus on how to resolve the crisis. Similarly, candidate Bush acknowledged the need for multilateral cooperation on Iraq during that same second presidential debate, stating that “[Saddam Hussein] is a danger, and…it’s going to be important to rebuild that coalition to keep the pressure on him.” Yet as President, Bush has taken an “it’s my way or the highway” approach. The Administration made it clear from the beginning that US policy on Iraq would not be influenced by its European allies or the United Nations, and has accused doubting foreign leaders of cowardice. Bush’s March 17 ultimatum conclusively signaled the failure of diplomacy. This is coercion, not consultation. But perhaps even more important in coalition-building is lesson number three…

Maintain credibility: Not surprisingly, the groups in our class simulation that made the clearest and most credible arguments in defense of their policies typically gained the most support for them. As Bush noted in, yes, that second presidential debate, “I think credibility is going to be very important in the future in the Middle East.” Yet the Administration has not convincingly explained to the international community why it thinks Saddam Hussein represents a uniquely immediate threat.

In particular, two avowed US motives for insisting upon regime change undermine the Administration’s credibility: Iraq’s alleged Al Qaeda connection and its human rights violations. The evidence tying Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda is embarrassingly flimsy. Osama bin Laden has publicly expressed contempt for the secular Hussein, and several other countries–most notably Saudi Arabia, a close US ally–have much tighter Al Qaeda connections. As a result, many suspect that Bush is merely using the September 11 tragedy to justify his long-held desire to oust Hussein.

The Bush Administration’s alleged concern for human rights violations in Iraq is equally unconvincing. The Taliban in Afghanistan had a reprehensible human rights record for years, but this did not become an important issue for the Administration until after September 11. Liberia, Burma, Turkmenistan and many other authoritarian states repress their people in appalling ways, but US troops are not massed at their borders. Such weak arguments for singling out Iraq breed cynicism and confusion in the international community and encourage speculation that less honorable motives are driving US foreign policy. The Administration is on the brink of war without having made a good case for removing Saddam Hussein from power.

(Our group also learned a fourth lesson–Congress can be safely ignored. The students playing members of Congress in the simulation had a frustrating week, as the rest of us made all of the important decisions. However, the Bush Administration understands this lesson.)

In short, Rice’s class taught us that C students rush to war, while A students work diligently and patiently toward peaceful solutions to international problems. When the Iraqi crisis has ended, what grade will the current Administration have earned?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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