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US Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes

Socrates’ pupil Chaerephon once asked an oracle “who is the wisest of all men?” The oracle responded that Socrates is the wisest of all because of his self-awareness. According to philosophers from Socrates to Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant, true wisdom and full knowledge may be a utopian fantasy.


Socrates’ pupil Chaerephon once asked an oracle “who is the wisest of all men?” The oracle responded that Socrates is the wisest of all because of his self-awareness. According to philosophers from Socrates to Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant, true wisdom and full knowledge may be a utopian fantasy. In a world of uncertainty where mistakes are unavoidable facts of daily life for citizens and politicians alike, how politicians will be able to avoid foreign policy mistakes is the main concern of this book. There are some other questions of crucial importance which the book deals with: What are foreign policy mistakes and how and why do they occur? The answers to those questions are available in this book and it concentrates on the concept of power.

Regarding the concept of power, the main question is “kto-kovo?” (Lenin’s famous question, “who controls whom?”) The answers to the question “what are foreign policy mistakes?” and conceptualizing foreign policy mistakes are quite blurry and complicated. There may be lots of different kinds of mistakes, such as violating moral rules, lack of cognitive judgment, and policies costing too much and having unanticipated and undesirable results. The mistakes can be classified as omission (too little/too late) and commission (too much/too soon). For example, mistakes of omission are evident in the British policies towards Germany which failed to deter Germany’s occupation of Sudetenland in 1938 and to reassure the Russians that they would negotiate an alliance against Germany. This failure of the British decision makers led to a non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939.The Katyn Forest massacre exemplifies best how Soviet Russia misperceived the gains in cooperating with Germany in the removal of Poland from the map of Europe because according to the authors, the Soviet decision to execute Polish POWs and bury them in the Katyn Forest is a foreign policy decision that falls into three domain; morality, intelligence and policy. It was a violation of international law, based on a diagnostic judgement blinded by ignorance of the future and by communist ideology, which led to a prescription for a policy action that alienated future allies.This, at the same time illustrates the mistake of commission (too much/too soon) and moral failure. Foreign policy choices are not only concerned with rational choices, but, as Axelrod and Jarwis clearly defined it, they also stem from some sources of mistakes such as subjective cognitive maps, heuristics, attribution errors, desires to maintain cognitive consistency and avoid cognitive dissonance, selective attention, and other emotional or cold cognitive biases. Khong explains why human beings are “creatures with limited cognitive capacities” by emphasizing that leaders, like every human, tend to turn to historical analogies for guidance when confronted with novel foreign policy challenges. However the issue is that the result is often a foreign policy mistake since this only helps the leaders “access analogies on the basis of surface similarities”.

When it comes to presidential mistakes of the 20th century, such as President Wilson’s refusal to compromise on the Versailles Treaty, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion, and President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, it can be said that all those mistakes can be explained by the exercise of power which leads to peace and war as possible outcomes of cooperation and conflict. Put differently, mistakes in the exercise of power which are defined as deviations from a standard of truth can contribute to mistakes of omission and commission regarding opportunities for cooperation and threats of conflict. For example, because the United States had not ratified the Treaty of Versailles, the system of collective security was not realized and the United States could not deter a potential aggressor from using force, and thus, as many have argued, contributed to World War II. There are two striking examples with respect to understanding the fact that in the absence of an overarching authority, the existence of an anarchical international system where danger and insecurity prevail is inevitable. One is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the other is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The statements of President Roosevelt and President George H.W. Bush showed that both presidents underestimated the threat and so both cases were deterrence failures. More specifically, deterrence failures are the results of mistakes of omission when leaders fail to recognize a threat (a diagnostic error of detection) and/or fail to calculate and take actions to deter it (a prescriptive error of hesitation). In the case of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, who was misguided by a group of hardliners who did not calculate that the Japanese leadership would not be satisfied with remaining an inferior state. The major reason why the United States failed to deter Saddam Hussein’s actions against Kuwait was related to a diagnostic mistake of omission. President Bush and his advisors supposed that Saddam had learned how costly another major war would be, after the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and therefore assumed he would not take a risk of going to war a second time. This was a categorical diagnostic error in which the leadership in Washington failed to detect and understand the intentions of Saddam Hussein.
The Bay of Pigs invasion is worth analysis as it was a striking example of the US leadership’s overestimation of a threat, a product of a dual mistake of commission. In the face of Castro’s decision to nationalize Cuba’s oil, telephone, mining, electric and, most important, sugar industries, Eisenhower embargoed all shipments which led to a serious economic crisis in Cuba and an improvement in economic relations between Cuba and Soviet Union. Thus, Cuba came to represent the Cold War in the US’s backyard. Eisenhower’s successor, Kennedy, and his advisors also inherited the conflict and made it worse when the plan to overthrow Castro with the Bay of Pigs operation failed. Put differently, the power of the US-supported exiles to remove the Castro regime was overestimated and the decision to have the operation exemplifies a prescriptive mistake of preemption and a “too much/too soon” pattern of foreign policy mistakes resulting in a false-alarm failure. Preceding Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the 1962 missile crisis, the fall of China to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and the expulsion of the Nationalist government to the island of Formosa in 1949 led to an ever increasing threat perception in Washington about the global spread of Communism. As in the Bay of Pigs case, US leaders exaggerated the threat and engaged in a strategic mistake of preemption. The basic reason why Washington made such diagnostic and prescriptive mistakes was partly based on faulty historical analogies. In the decision-making process, there were frequent references to the “lessons of Munich”. It was argued that Nazism and Fascism would not have swept Europe in the late 1930s if decisive action had been taken in 1938. Thus, US leaders, with the aim of halting the spread of communism immediately, exaggerated the threat emanating from Vietnam and made a mistake of preemption by escalating military actions and ignoring diplomatic openings from the Communist Hanoi regime. In addition, the domino theory was used to explain the strategic importance of Vietnam; however, this theory lacked plausibility and the argument that “if we allow Vietnam to fall, tomorrow we will be fighting in Hawaii and in San Francisco” proved that the Americans were totally unaware of Asian history and the vast differences between Asian nations. Another point worth to be mentioned is that the leaders in Washington miscalculated the efficacy of US air power in a guerilla war. By the end of the third year, 1968, the war had become untenable and the new US president, Nixon, negotiated a withdrawal in
1973. Over one million people died in the war from 1965 to 1975.
The opportunity for German reunification following Stalin’s death openly showed that sometimes Washington either did not recognize or failed to embrace significant opportunities. The US’s response to Stalin’s successors’ overtures hinting that they might be willing to exchange German unification in return for the country remaining neutral was completely negative. According to the Eisenhower administration, this was a Soviet ploy to divide the West and to derail German rearmament and the establishment of a European Defense Community. The result was a classic reassurance failure because Washington lost the opportunity for a general rapprochement and the possibility of German reunification. Similarly Reagan misdiagnosed the shift in Soviet strategy initiated by Gorbachev. This led to a loss of huge sums of money because if Reagan had responded earlier to Gorbachev’s peace initiatives, the extraordinary US defense budget could have been reduced and forces in Europe could have been brought home earlier.
President Truman’s attempt in 1950 to unify Korea by military force and Carter’s attempt in 1977 to push for a far-reaching arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union illustrate false hope failures. While Truman basically aimed at rolling back Communism by achieving the unification of Korea, Carter wanted to conclude unfinished business by reviving the stalled SALT II agreement. However, both presidents could not achieve their goals mainly due to false or inaccurate answers to power politics questions. The basic argument of this book is that foreign policy mistakes are the result of false or inaccurate answers to the power politics question of “kto-kovo?” (“who controls whom?”) In both Truman’s and Carter’s cases false answers came from naïve and overambitious overtures and a false sense of optimism in their ability to control the outcomes. Consequently, Truman’s decision resulted in 54,000 US casualties, and more than one million Chinese and Korean troops as well as civilians, losing their lives in the ensuing three years of fighting.

The minimal standard for diagnosing mistakes is whether a decision is a rational choice, “a choice that leads to a preferred outcome, based on a player’s goals” (Brams, p. 226). This footnote exists in the book. There are some theoretical solutions that help actors minimize policy mistakes. If those theories are vacuous, they can be subsumed collectively under the principle of disjointed incrementalism. The myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is to make relatively small reversible moves away from the status quo under the condition of low information about the consequences and costs of a decision. The TOM (theory of moves), a sequential game theory, is another theory which was employed to model the implications of “kto-kovo?” It can answer the “how” questions of detecting, fixing and avoiding foreign policy mistakes. The US’s decisions in the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts help us understand whether US leaders followed the rules of rationality in choosing cooperation or conflict as strategies in each conflict. In each case, one can find both similarities and differences. For example, in the Vietnam case, Washington advocated a two-track approach in which the United States and North Vietnam would negotiate a staged withdrawal of external forces while the contending forces in South Vietnam would work out a political agreement. However, North Vietnam’s approach was totally different and called for a one-track negotiations strategy linking a cease fire and troop withdrawals to the replacement of the Saigon regime with a coalition government that included the National Liberation Front of Forces opposed to the South Vietnamese government. After three and a half years of diplomatic struggle, the US position shifted in an attempt to break the diplomatic deadlock and proposed a cease fire. Here the issue was that while the bilateral power distribution between the United States and North Vietnam was asymmetrical, it was symmetrical at the local level between existing US and North Vietnamese forces inside South Vietnam. When it comes to the Iraqi case, Washington shifted from an enemy-centered strategy in 2003-2006 to a population-centered strategy in 2007-2009 known as the surge. The strategic objective was on gaining friends and allies rather than on fighting enemies. “Gaining friends” instead of “killing enemies” can be explained as a relative success of both US strategies in both cases. The remedies to the procedural errors of diagnosis or prescription in answering the power politics question “kto-kovo?” can be summarized as follows: moral/ethical solution, generic design solutions, actor specific solutions, and theoretical solutions. Besides there are ten precepts for avoiding and fixing foreign policy mistakes; however, the fitness criteria of rationality that govern these rules are that a foreign policy must keep the people of the United States secure while not threatening the security of the others.

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