The very first episode of the “I Love Lucy” show established a template for all of the sitcoms to follow. The episode, titled, “Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her” has the archetypal sitcom plot:
Lucy is absorbed in her mystery/suspense novel…Later on, Lucy over hears a conversation Ricky is having with his agent and misunderstands the phone call, as she is only able to hear Ricky’s end of the line. She then comes to the mistaken conclusion that Ricky is going to kill her, based on the novel’s plot and Ethel’s card reading. [emp added]
Much wackiness ensues. The device is as old as comedy itself. See Shakespeare and the Greek comedies. Character A misunderstands something Character B did or said and then takes action based on that misunderstanding, with comedic consequences. Most importantly, the resolution of the plot occurs when the misunderstanding is cleared up by explicit and honest communication. Everyone hugs and all is forgiven.
A lot of observers are having trouble figuring out the philosophical underpinnings of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. How does the president see America’s place in the world? How will he use American power? How much does he care about such things?
I think Obama et al believe that all of life’s problems are ultimately just the result of miscommunications and misunderstandings like those that drive a sitcom plot. Obama views himself in the role of the wise character in the sitcom who puzzles out the misunderstanding and brings all of the characters together for hugs at the end.
Let’s call this the “Wacky Sitcom Mixup” school of foreign policy.
You can tell that Obama belongs to this school because he believes that negotiations begin by finding out what each side actually wants. That sounds good in abstract, but when looking at a protracted 70-year conflict like the Israeli-Islamic conflict is there really any ambiguity or misunderstanding between the two sides?
Yet Obama talks like he merely needs to sit the Israelis and Muslims down together in the same room, talk for a while and then the Israeli prime minister will slap himself on the forehead and say, “Wait, you said, ‘Fill all the shoes?’ Oy! I thought you said, ‘Kill all the Jews!’ Boy, am I embarrassed!” And everybody hugs.
It isn’t going to happen. Major sustained conflicts don’t arise from misunderstandings and miscommunications. In the vast majority of cases, all sides understand all too well what the other side wants. They fight because they have a zero-sum dynamic in which the gain of one side means the loss of another.
In most cases, the conflict is driven by an autocratic elite in one or more parties who view the conflict as their primary vehicle for maintaining power within their own polity. They often care nothing for the suffering of their people or even the economic damage it might cause the polity as a whole. Most autocrats operate from a “better to rule in hell than serve in heaven” model in which they would rather be the despotic rulers of a poor and crippled country than share power within a richer country. Such autocrats have no incentive to resolve a conflict on terms equitable to the other party.
Worse, as I noted before, they often operate from seriously delusional world models that make it almost impossible for anyone else to find common ground with them. Hitler really believed a vast and ancient Jewish conspiracy existed that targeted all racial Germans. Stalin and Mao really believed in historical inevitability and the consequential inescapable conflict with all non-communist states. The mullahs of Iran really believe in their apocalyptic prophesy of conflict with all Jews. They really believe that America opposes them out of a hostility to Islam. The Palestinians really believe in Dar-al-Islam and therefore believe that both God and honor requires them to destroy Israel by force of arms. No negotiator has the power to alter the fundamental world-view of such autocrats.
Consequently, all such deluded autocrats view negotiations as a means of buying time and/or gaining temporary advantage. They demand physical concessions up front in return for vague promises of moderating their own future behavior. (See the template for the Israeli-Muslim conflict. Israel gives up strategic territory and exposes itself to greater danger of attack. Muslims promise in return to not attack Israel and then do so anyway. Then the cycle starts all over again with Muslims promising that this time they really will behave.) They never give away a serious advantage or do anything that would weaken their internal standing.
Simple honest misunderstandings don’t drive most serious conflicts. No one is going to hear something from the other side and have an, “Ah ha!” moment that resolves everything. People who appear evil aren’t just misunderstood, they’re actually evil. Anyone who goes into negotiations with such people with a naif-like belief that the conflict arises from a wacky sitcom mixup will only empower the autocrats and accelerate the conflict.
Life isn’t a 30-minute TV show and the comedic narrative does not predict the behavior of murderous autocrats. Obama and friends need to understand that before they try to write the show’s final episode.