- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Once again, team Europe managed to thrash a dozen of America’s finest golfers in one of that sport’s most prestigious competitions, the Ryder Cup. But Europe’s successes in Ryder Cup play convey a broader message beyond golf. In many ways, these defeats are metaphors explaining why American foreign policy is in deep trouble.

The reasons rest in different rules of the game; differences between individual and team competition; and a thinking opposition.

English seed merchant Samuel Ryder started the matches in 1927. Originally played between America and Great Britain, given U.S. dominance, in 1979, eligibility for play was expanded to all of Europe. Today, the cup consists of 28 individual matches, each worth a single point. In the event of a draw called a “halve,” both teams get half a point.

Sixteen matches are “team” play with two Americans against two Europeans. The rest are “singles” between two individual players. At the end of the competition, 14 points wins the cup. If the score is 14-14, the cup stays in the possession of the previous winner. Played every two years, Europe has won seven of the past 10 events, the last two by huge margins of 18-9. Here is why:

U.S. professional golf championships are won on the basis of stroke play. Over an event, aggregate low score wins. American professional golf is, of course, an individual not a “team sport.” And, most importantly, no matter where the competition takes place, as the world’s greatest golfers know, golf is principally played with the head.

The Ryder Cup is won on the basis of match not stroke play, that is hole-by-hole not aggregate score. A high score on a single hole, enough to knock a player out of competition in stroke play, still beats a higher score and is one of eighteen holes. The Ryder Cup is the quintessential team competition even with a dozen “singles” matches. And, ultimately, the team that wins does so by out thinking as well as outplaying the opposition. The last time an American team did that was in Brookline, Mass., in 1999 with a dramatic come from behind win.

The parallels with American foreign policy are clear. The United States is playing the geostrategic equivalent of stroke play while the adversary is experienced at match competition. With America’s overwhelming strength, it believes that at the end of the day, the best aggregate score wins.

Jihadists see the world differently. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the United States believes gradual improvement over time defeats the enemy. The enemy wages the struggle on an event-by-event basis, attacking U.S. convoys with roadside bombs and killing handfuls of civilians. If a terror cell is killed or captured, as in match play, the broader movement lives to fight another day.

Balancing individual, go-it-alone policies with the need for genuine partnerships has not been an American strength at least for the Bush administration. It talks about coalitions of the willing. However, the record is not one filled with success. On the one hand, the United States relies on four- or six-party talks with Iran and North Korea where direct negotiations are needed yet downplays partnerships in bringing more potential allies to bear through some form of regional negotiations and conferences to address crucial issues that might provide some solutions for Iraq.

But the biggest setbacks are in the head game. Simply put, America’s enemies know they cannot compete or contend frontally with us because they will lose. So, these adversaries must outwit us. The United States has the most capable military in the world. So what do jihadist extremists do? They neutralize that predominant force by taking the fight to the cities where American military superiority is diluted or defeated by the inherent difficulties of operating in urban environments in which the enemy blends in with non-combatants.

Others such as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez use international platforms such as the United Nations and the media to attack and ridicule the United States, creating the false impression of political equality with America. Hezbollah and Hamas use the ballot box along with strong civic-action programs to gain legitimacy all the while decrying the United States. We do not like any of these activities. However, we should not fall into the trap of believing that our adversaries are not smart nor are incapable of outsmarting us.

European success in the Ryder Cup will not be permanent. But, to win, American golfers need to understand why they are losing. For America to prevail in the current struggle, it needs to do the same thing and quickly. Otherwise, it will not merely be a cup or prestige that will be lost.

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