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How to Write Readable Policy Recommendations – Kudos to David Schenker

September 2, 2011

With all the dry news bulletins reporting on the violence Bashar Assad’s regime is heaping on its citizens in Syria, more than a few politicians, pundits, and analysts have weighed in with their cures for the crisis. David Schenker’s August 20 article in The New Republic stands out as a remarkably well-drafted and intelligent list of policy recommendations.

David Schenker

David Schenker

Well, “list” is not the most accurate way to describe Schenker’s article. Fortunately, he has the sense not to give us a list anywhere in the article. I call it a list of policy recommendations because that’s how those of us who learned to write policy recommendation memos in school learned to write them. Usually we made a bulleted or numbered list of the policy options and then argued why some are better than others. If you’re good at writing these kind of memos, your bureaucratic superiors can skim your recommendations in a minute or two and walk into his meeting to discuss the matter with his colleagues.

The procedure suits the stocky, hierarchical, bureaucratic mindset. Yet, what works well for the bureaucratic mindset doesn’t generally work well for a more general audience. Schenker wrote this piece for The New Republic, and a magazine article has to constantly appeal to the reader’s attention span: never spend more than a few words “stating the obvious.”

Schenker has the sense to get past the military options in Syria quickly (as he puts it, America has no “appetite” for yet another military adventure in the region) and then to spend most of his time explaining sanctions and the other ‘creative’ solutions available to our government.

By doing so, he brushes aside the common discourse that our only options in Syria lie in backing the protesters militarily (à la NATO in Libya), pushing for sanctions through the ever-delaying EU and Security Council processes, and accepting Assad’s brutality.

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad

This master analyst also dances circles around the average talk show guest expert, who typically gets bogged down in the drawbacks of any policy under discussion. Schenker presents the difficulties associated with each of his policy recommendations cogently, not hiding the dangers behind fancy turns-of-phrase, yet he also makes the case for pursuing those policies despite the challenges they pose.

And unlike the typical policy recommendation memo, which retains a cold calculus of the options through the last words, Schenker ends his article with a powerful paragraph that drives home the importance of US action in Syria:

“It’s true that the United States, and its international partners, will only be able increase their pressure on the Assad regime incrementally. But for the Syrian people, incremental change is much preferable to no change at all. “

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