Editor’s note: The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, military, media, scientists and experts for more than a decade to work together at better understanding and operating in the world. It will be held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Student Center from Feb. 6-8. This column is by a participant. This year’s theme is “Rethinking.” Find out more here.
A popular meme has circulated for years purporting to show the relationships among states, nations, parties, militias and sects in the Middle East. It resembled nothing more than a cat-scrambled ball of yarn marking friends who hated friends of friends, while enemies of friends jumped happily into bed together.
The implication, of course, was “these folks are nuts.” And when we declare folks irrational, we evade the hard work of deciphering the internal logic of their assumptions, the stories underlying their reactions or how they’ll respond to our statements and actions. Because, you know, they aren’t what we’d call “rational actors.”
We no longer have the luxury of writing off a currently volatile region like the Middle East as fundamentally incomprehensible. Phrases like Axis of Evil, Shi’a or even Islamic jihadist carry such baggage that they are analytically comatose. Rather, we must know whom we are addressing, directly or indirectly. We need to pay heed to what we mean, what our intended audiences hears and how it is understood and repeated in the region and the world.
In rhetoric and in public diplomacy, we weigh impact as well as intent. Good intentions may pave the way to hell, but unexpected negative impacts weave the hand basket we travel in.
For example, a fiery political pronouncement to an American audience, carefully tailored to resonate with a specific domestic faction, may be picked up by the eavesdropping audience, to be used and understood in ways the speaker never intended. Likewise, a judiciously crafted formal statement to a specific international audience may enflame feelings in other areas or be exploited for partisan advantage at home. The impacts can be greater than the intent, flooding social media to the joy of enemies and trolls alike.
Security or military interventions face the same challenge, since (in policy terms) they are also designed to carry a message. The conflict in Gaza activated preparedness plans, and troops were assigned to new missions or locations. The domestic aspect is often logistical, as in the movement of U.S. armed forces in a time of international tension. Sometimes the deliberate intent is to signal U.S. strength and readiness. The domestic impact includes increased uncertainty and sense of threat, and the international impact may vary, as some governments commend American engagement while others condemn American heavy-handedness. Again, intent differs from impact.
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The United States has struck Houthi targets in Yemen, intending to end what the Pentagon termed “illegal, dangerous and destabilizing Houthi actions” against shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea. The Houthis (or Ansar Allah), a Zaydi Yemeni group with deep roots and resentments in Yemen, seized power in 2014 and have received increasing support and direction from Iran.
Critics claim Iran is responsible for Houthi attacks on shipping, despite repeated Houthi insistence they are acting independently to force a halt to Israeli bombing of Gaza’s Palestinians. The U.S. kinetic response (striking Houthi missile sites) has had an impact on Houthi capabilities — and also an impact on observers in the region and beyond. The American intent, to reduce Houthi access to missiles and send Iran a message, is clear and consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. But what is the impact of the impacts?
Houthis redoubled efforts to damage shipping in the Red Sea, explicitly demanding a Gaza cease-fire. Iran launched missiles into Syria, Iraq and Pakistan claiming they are retaliation for terrorist attacks inside Iran. The United States struck Iran-supported locations inside Iraq, causing renewed demands in Iraq for U.S. troop withdrawal.
The American intent was to block destabilizing Houthi actions through targeted strikes, simultaneously sending a virtual shot across the bow to Iran. The impact of the impacts has been, thus far, a mirror image of Iran flexing missile muscles back at the United States. Iraq is standing once again in the unenviable position of a pickleball net between careless players.
The reactions of the eavesdropping audience to American military prowess can be the difference between a single successful strike and more sustainably secure societies. Our challenge is to start with clear strategic goals, to articulate our intent well, to assess the tools and partners we need and — perhaps most significant — to never, ever ignore our impact on observers at home and abroad.
Joanne Held Cummings is director of Middle East Studies at Baylor University and a former Foreign Service officer.