Foreign Policy Blogs

Editorial: Parcells The Thinker

Aside from his many accomplishments as a football coach, Bill Parcells is famous for using the phrase “You are who you are”. Five words that summed up a career’s worth of championship football wisdom that can be directly applied to everything from personal psychology, to team dynamics, to international relations. Who says jocks are dumb?

What can the US learn from Bill Parcells?

What can the US learn from Bill Parcells?

What The Tuna was really getting at was the importance of knowledge of self. For Parcells it was impossible to win if a team didn’t understand it’s own character. To know one’s self—one’s fundamental strengths and weaknesses—allowed an individual, or a team, to function more effectively. For Parcells the coach, this often boiled down to making better decisions in crunch time. Should we run or pass, punt or go for it, blitz or not? Well, who ARE we? What gives us the best chance to win? With Parcells it was always all about winning.

The hard part about Parcells’ philosophy is that it requires constant evaluation of one’s performance, or that of his team, and apply that knowledge. This is hard. Any miscalculation, no matter how slight, can potentially lead to failure. On the football field a team’s ability to accurately assess their own situation, and adjust accordingly, translates directly into Wins and Losses. At the end of the day there is a concrete measure of performance.

In International Relations it isn’t nearly as easy to evaluate one’s surroundings, or to judge outcomes. Instead of assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of a 60-man roster, international actors must balance infinitely more moving parts with nothing nearly as clear as a Win or a Loss to tell them how they’re doing. Often an actor doesn’t really realize they’ve won or lost for months, or even years, after they’ve made a decision. Just ask the late Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev how hard it is to keep score. Cuban missile crisis; Win, or Loss?

The Jury is still out when it comes to the diplomatic performance of the US vis-a-vis Syria, however, I would argue that the past two years—and really going back much farther than that—have gone on the scoreboard as a loss. No Ambassador. Sanctions still in place. Not even a hint of progress in the peace process. And, for the more hawkish, no signs of Syrian movement away from Iran. If we’re being honest, sounds more like a blowout.

If the situation is going to improve, the US needs to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize exactly who it is—in the Parcellsian sense—and ask some tough questions about how to effectively adjust its behavior in the Syrian portfolio. Based on recent comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that sort of probing self-reevaluation isn’t coming anytime soon.

Based on the behavior and language coming from the American diplomatic “team” it’s clear that the US has quite a misguided perception of itself. It would seem the current administration sees Special Envoy George Mitchell as a sort of Neo-Kissinger, kicking ass and taking names in “Shuttle Diplomacy v2.0” as he crisscrosses the region. It would follow that the US sees itself as occupying the same position it did during Kissinger’s original regional diplomatic tour back in the 70’s; that of authority figure and regional enforcer.

If you were to ask Bill Parcells about this he would probably repeat his favorite quote. The US simply doesn’t occupy the same regional role it once did but hasn’t figured that out yet. Relatively speaking, the US is less powerful and less important to the Middle East generally, and Syria specifically. If the US tries to isolate Syria –like, say, a certain former US president attempted to do—via sanctions, or other diplomatic avenues, Syria can simply turn to Russia, or Iran, or Turkey. Ooooh, don’t forget Venezuela! The US can’t continue to pretend that it can tell countries like Syria what to do and expect a cooperative response. It’s about time President Obama and his diplomatic team acknowledged this shift and adjusted US diplomacy accordingly.

If Obama is really serious about Syria he ought to invest some real personal political capitol in appointing an Ambassador. The absence of one is a hold over of past failures, and sours future attempts at progress. Secondly the current sanctions regime is in need of a serious reassessment. Terminating them could also motivate the Syrian government to make other diplomatic concessions. Either tweaking the current sanctions policy to be more effective, or ending it all together, would be a step in the right direction. There are plenty of other areas where there is room for the US and Syria to work together as well. The ongoing rapprochement between Damascus and Riyadh, ongoing issues in regards to the reconstruction of Iraq, and of course, the management of Lebanon, all present opportunities for cooperation and mutual benefit. From the perspective of US self interest, it is imperative that these matters are addressed. Get your head out of the scrapbook America. It’s time to address the new realities of what you can and can’t do with eyes open.

Because, after all, you are who you are.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.