There's a misleading saying being passed around the world of punditry and policy, argues Harvard professor Stephen Walt:"When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." The saying comes from Osama bin Laden, and it was recently parroted in one of Tom Friedman's New York Times columns. On Thursday, Walt set out to explain the why the saying is persistent, why it's wrong, and why it should be nixed from foreign policy discussions.
JUST HOW WRONG THE HORSE ANALOGY IS
Bin Laden's statement may be useful advice when betting on horse races, but it mostly reveals that he doesn't know very much about international politics. ... The Soviet Union was the "strong horse" on the Eurasian landmass after the war, but Western Europe soon coalesced into a defensive alliance and allied with the United States in NATO. Even after the United States won the Cold War, you didn't see countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, or Syria suddenly fold their tents and rush to embrace the obviously "strong horse."... Even in the Arab world, this alleged tendency to embrace the "strong horse" is hard to find.
WHY BIN LADEN SAYS IT ANYWAY
As I argued in an earlier book, revolutionary movements face enormous odds, and the vast majority of would-be revolutionaries end up in retirement, in prison, or dead. ... So they routinely portray opponents as "paper tigers" (i.e., "the United States may look powerful, but in reality it is decadent and fragile") and they argue that one or two revolutionary acts spark a vast uprising against their opponents and sweep them to victory.
WHY TOM FRIEDMAN AND OTHERS REPEAT IT
Pundits like Friedman don't normally embrace any of Bin Laden's other views on world politics, but they like this line because it seems like a good reason for us to obsess about resolve, credibility, and the possibility that even the tiniest setback somewhere might have catastrophic consequences. ... Conversely, it also suggests that one or two successes will suddenly trigger a similar wave of favorable developments: by this logic, we pass a Health Care Bill, and suddenly those mullahs in Tehran will start quaking in their turbans.
WHY PLANNING POLICY ACCORDING TO THE SAYING IS A BAD IDEA
Fighting foolish wars in order to convince people that we are the "strongest horse" is an obvious way to make Bin Laden's fantasies more likely. ... his real achievement was helping convince the Bush administration to adopt the neo-conservative program in the Middle East-most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq-a set of self-inflicted wounds from which we are still laboring to recover.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.