All Presidents have the same foreign policy – eventually

In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order authorizing Operation Cyclone, a covert campaign to fund, train, and arm Islamist militias opposed to the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. The operation is generally credited with precipitating the Soviet invasion of the country later that year.

Ronald Reagan authorized US troops to participate in a multinational operation in Beirut in 1982. Suicide bombings killed hundreds of US soldiers. Fighting there quickly escalated, putting US and allied troops in combat against Soviet-backed Syrian forces. Faced with risk of being drawn into direct conflict with the Soviets, Reagan withdrew the American presence in early 1984. By his final years in office, Reagan the anti-Communist crusader came within a breath of offering to give up our nuclear arsenal in negotiations with the Soviets.

Given enough time, all US Presidents eventually belong to the same political party when it comes to foreign policy. They may differ in terms of tactics and methods, but they eventually reach the same general conclusions about the nature, extent, and reach of US military and diplomatic power. Hawkish Presidents become pragmatists. Idealistic dreamers become pragmatists. They all become pragmatists when they are forced to do the job and face its inevitable outcomes.

The measure of a President’s foreign policy success is not how well they performed against their promises, but how much time, pressure, and blood were required to force them to abandon their illusions and come to terms with real constraints. Think of it as the resource-to-reality quotient – a measure of how much blood, treasure, and national humiliation it takes to force a President to face facts.

Measured against this quotient certain Presidents stand out. Guys like George HW Bush (Bush I) and Richard Nixon stand out for having a score near zero. They brought almost no illusions to the job and navigated maddeningly complex foreign scenarios almost flawlessly from day one.

Bush II and Lyndon Johnson rank near the bottom. Drinking from an endless well of denial and gifted with an impenetrable lack of curiosity about the wider world, they resisted pragmatism to the bitter end. Both Presidents left the country with miserable damage that would take multiple Administrations to mitigate. Their persistent delusions would limit American options in dealing with the world for years after they were gone.

Even in these worst cases, the demands of the job began to operate in time. By Johnson’s end he had recognized the need to apply more direct military pressure on North Vietnam though he never saw the potential for an opening with China that might end the war. Bush II achieved some minimal realization of the disaster he had spawned and began to at least try to apply some patches before he was ushered into an inglorious retirement.

Obama so far ranks somewhere in the middle. He came to office with a heavy burden of high-minded ambitions, like his goal of engaging in direct talks with Iran and his plans to being a swift end to the Iraq and Afghan wars. Despite lofty goals he started moving toward pragmatism almost immediately, incurring relatively few casualties and little long-term damage along the way.

His plans for dealing with Islamist militias in Iraq and Syria seem to mark Obama’s Bush I moment, the point at which his various hopes and goals are brought into line with realistic constraints and the demands of long term national security. Obama seems to have joined the Presidential party, embracing the complex, frustrating, and morally ambiguous foreign policy that all of our leaders are driven to in time.

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Foreign Policy
42 comments on “All Presidents have the same foreign policy – eventually
  1. flypusher says:

    Some good news:

    So Pakistan, want to be considered as something more than a backwards 3rd World hellhole? How about a rigorous, but fair and open trial here?

  2. flypusher says:

    Here we are starting the commemoration of the centenary of the “war to end all wars”, and here’s the perfect chance not just to remember, but actually correct some of the mistakes of the past, if you want to go all in. By all in I mean take that clusterfuck that is Sykes-Picot and give it the trash heap it deserves. Redrawing the borders with concerns of the people of the ME in mind would not be a cure all, but it could be a start toward ending some if that chaos. Sunnis and Shi’ites don’t want to work and play together? Fine, give them their own separate regions.

  3. For a somewhat more phlegmatic review of Obama position in the pantheon of U.S. presidential foreign policy, I refer you to Daniel Henninger: (Yeah, it’s behind a pay wall. Suck it up and subscribe to a real news publication. Or google ‘the humbling of a president.’)

    Actually, as I listened to the CinC, it became apparent to me that the president was speaking in politi-code about franchising the ongoing SOF activities we’ve been undertaking in Africa to Iraq and Syria. For an example of our ongoing success in working with the Ethiopians and Kenyans to degrade and destroy al Shabaab in Somalia, see stories regarding the recent demise of Ahmed Abdi Godane. Go SEALs.

    When Obama says ‘no boots on the ground,’ what he really means no *publicly visible* boots on the ground. We’ve got SOF forces on the ground all over Africa. Apparently secret boots on the ground don’t count. Of course, for the men doing the work, e.g. the SEALs of NSWU-10 and similar outfits, it’s a life of constant deadly danger, with no back up and no hope of rescue should operations go pear shaped. These remarkably brave individuals are really hanging it all out there.

    It remains to be seen whether the Somalia model can be effectively franchised to deal with IS. IS is far better organized, equipped and resourced than al Shabaab has ever been. Syria has long been known for its advanced air defense capabilities, courtesy of Russia. If IS has managed to capture advanced Russian SAM launchers, air support efforts could get very ugly very quickly. The problem with no substantial ground presence is that it leaves us restricted to flying sorties from carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf. That’s an awful lot of mid-air refueling, long flight times, and no hope of a QRF to recover downed pilots. In a word, it’s tenuous.

    I suspect the Somalia strategy may be sufficient to forestall further advances by IS. I very much doubt it will be sufficient to root them out of recently captures cities, let alone destroy them. Time will tell. Meanwhile, they’ll be using their substantial resources to plot a strike in our backyard. Lovely.

    • flypusher says:

      The Kurds are quite willing to be “boots on the ground”, at least for the Northern parts of Iraq and Syria. We should accept that offer.

      Also in light of the whole screwed up mess that is Iraq, and our role in causing that screwing up for no good reason (and I’m defining a good reason as they were actually a threat, which they weren’t), using special forces has its appeal. If you can target bad actors without the wholesale devastation of conventional war, good. I don’t know if special forces get more than the standard military benefits, but they should.

      • Fly, SOF forces get hazardous duty pay and a variety of other pays that in aggregate in no way compensate the risks they take, IMHO. But they do so willingly and with tremendous enthusiasm and professionalism, so God bless them. My brother has considerable respect for the Ethiopian military; my guess is the Kurds are on a par. They should make good partners in this type of scenario.

        Targeting heavy armaments on the move is not a problem, so containment (or “manageability,” to paraphrase a certain someone) is readily achievable. Targeting hard assets hidden in urban environments is a whole ‘nuther deal. The folks we will be working with (Kurds, Shias) would stick out like sore thumbs in the Sunni-dominated cities taken by IS. There will be no significant targeting of “bad actors” in these settings in the near term. It’ll take *years* to make significant progress, as it has in Somalia. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be a dead guy walking, but he’s not going to be dead tomorrow. Something tells me this president is not going to have the stomach for that kind of commitment.

      • texan5142 says:

        Enlighten us, what, pray tell, makes you think that this president won’t have that kind of commitment ? What is the answer? Granted we are not privy to all the information that he has….. What is the answer? Destroy them is my answer, but who is them? How many civilians are worth the price?

      • CaptSternn says:

        “The Kurds are quite willing to be “boots on the ground”, at least for the Northern parts of Iraq and Syria. We should accept that offer.”

        Mujahideen in Afghanistan ring a bell? Northern Alliance ring a bell? Al Qaeda ring a bell? Muslim Brotherhood ring a bell? Does our “occupation” of Saudi Arabia to “contain” Iraq that turned al Qaeda against the House of Saud, which led to events on this day of the year 13 years ago ring a bell?

        Think the Kurds have forgotten about the U.S. doing nothing after the Hussein regime used chemical weapons on them? Think Turkey is going to give up territory to establish Kurdistan? Think Turkey is going to forget the terrorist tactics used against Turkey by the Kurds? Think the Shi’ites are suddenly going to be our friends because we have become Iran’s Air Force?


        Does anybody do any research or have any memory of the past mistakes? Or is it all just whatever sounds good at the moment without consideration of the possible and probable consequences?

        TThor was right under a previous entry, we do not wage war. Instead we try to be politically correct and nice about war. War is not nice. It is not pretty. It is not politically correct. Our enemies are ruthless and have no value for life, we should return the favor ten times over, 100 times over, to the point where they start to value life. It is ugly, and we should make it as ugly as we can. Don’t worry about winning hearts and minds, beat the enemy into total submission, then consider how to rebuild. Then they can decide to be our friends.

      • John Galt says:

        As some of us have patiently tried to explain, carpet bombing western Iraq comes with the guarantee of substantial collateral damage. Much of this will be to the exact people we should be helping. I don’t think that such indiscriminate use of force is consistent with American values. Sometimes brave American men and women have chosen to accept the risks of war to protect the innocent. That is why we are the “City on the Hill,” not disconnected bombing campaigns waged from thousands of miles away.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        We either do what is necessary or not do anything at all. Like Vietnam, doing an action piecemeal will only get more of our soldiers killed. If we are at war with a country, do all out like Thor suggested. And like The Captain said, keep hitting them until they value their life more then our death. The adage “Shit or get off the pot” rings true here.

      • flypusher says:

        “Think the Kurds have forgotten about the U.S. doing nothing after the Hussein regime used chemical weapons on them? Think Turkey is going to give up territory to establish Kurdistan? Think Turkey is going to forget the terrorist tactics used against Turkey by the Kurds? Think the Shi’ites are suddenly going to be our friends because we have become Iran’s Air Force?


        Yeah, Sternn, really. Because of the theme of this entry: Pragmatism. Unlike the groups you listed, the Kurds have acted like pragmatists rather than fanatics. They are interested in their own state, rather than a Caliphate or killing people who don’t subscribe to their religion. Have they forgotten Bush41 hanging them out to dry back in ’91 (and shame on him for doing do)? I doubt it, but because they are the pragmatists, if they seeing working with us as the best chance of getting the state they want, they’ll do it. No, the Turks aren’t going to like it (and I have touched on that before), but they also want closer ties with Europe, so there are deals to be made there. As for the Shi’ites, I didn’t include them, because of the way the ran Iraq once they got the power. I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them, but we’ll have to deal with them too. This time with both eyes open, unlike when we armed the mujahideen, knowing that they hated us too.

        Your are just as delusional as ever in your assumptions that nobody else here has been reading and watching the history unfold.

      • John Galt says:

        “If we are at war with a country, do all out like Thor suggested.”

        What is the country with which we are at war?

      • JG, you may not recognize IS as a country; neither does the Obama State Dept. or the UN (at least, not yet.) Rest assured, IS considers itself a country. Much like Putin’s Russia, its primary concern at the moment is how far it can extend its borders.

        Al Saud claims the title of protector of the holy cities of Islam, which conveniently fall within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia. One suspects the Caliph of IS would prefer to assume this mantle himself. Transition in naming from ISIS to ISIL to simply IS is probably causing a spike in king Abdullah’s sleeping pill consumption.

      • John Galt says:

        It is not a country. It is an amalgamation of thugs drawn from all over the world presently occupying parts of two countries, Syria and Iraq. As an occupying force, it is terrorizing those who live in that area. Going LeMay on them is exactly the same as carpet bombing eastern Ukraine to get rid of Russian soldiers there. You treat the victims as nothing more than inconveniences. This is a great way to win a battle and a terribly ineffective way to win a war. Our Middle Eastern policy has long been to fight battles and pretend they are wars. This has not been a successful strategy.

      • JG, are you *really* so ignorant of history? The borders of virtually every country on the planet were originally defined by an “occupying force” of thugs (or conquering heroes, depending on your POV – the history of England and the UK is a particularly illuminating example). Victors write history, but don’t kid yourself about how the vast majority of countries got started. All IS has to do is consolidate and hang on. If they hang on long enough, they will become first a de facto nation, and then eventually a recognized nation. That’s how these things generally work.

        As I pointed out above, the current strategy may or may not work. My money is on the latter, but we’ll see. At any rate, we can defer the carpet bombing until *after* they /dirty bomb/EMP/cyber nuke/actual nuke/ us.

      • John Galt says:

        If you seriously think ISIS is eventually going be admitted to the United Nations because they manage to occupy some territory for a while, I’d like some of whatever you are smoking. Can you point to a single modern example of a group of thugs occupying a territory and eventually becoming a recognized state?

      • Vietnam. Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia. Cyprus. Israel. Turkey. Those are off the top of my head. I’m sure quite a few other countries have had their borders established by force of arms in the post WW-I era.

    • Crogged says:

      If ISIS is so powerful and terrible why did Turkey not want to be part of the offensive? For once, assume they have citizens and a government similar to the US, pragmatists who don’t want war or terrorists in their country. ISIS is holding quite a few Turks as hostages, but still only is taking a humanitarian position in this conflict. Why–is there anything they know we don’t?

      Why get involved in a Sunni/Shiite war which is centuries long, what benefit will we receive from choosing a victor? We have no f______g clue as to who is a moderate in Syria, every action we have taken in the Middle East has led to more extremism and disarray. To this extent there really are just two positions, complete war and devastation leading to a rebuilding and convincing the remaining alive that our intentions were always good, or declaring victory and walking away. People will forgive you, but first you have to quit punching them in the mouth.

      Even Dick F_____G Cheney said the below ALL THE WAY BACK IN 1991–why is this so hard to grasp? Let them have the destiny they choose.

      “What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi’i government or a Kurdish government or Ba’athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable? I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it’s my view that the President got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.”

    • Crogged says:

      “It’s like they let Bernie Madoff work on Wall Street again, or returned the FEMA portfolio to Brownie.”

  4. John Galt says:

    Essentially you’re saying that regardless of how a president initially approaches foreign policy, things eventually become FUBAR and we have to start blowing stuff up.

  5. Crogged says:

    “Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes rather than in terms of representative accuracy.”

    ISIS threatens the US is not a pragmatic statement, but an assumption underneath a conspiracy. It was in Britain’s ‘interests’ that Catholics and Protestants stop trying to kill each other in Ireland because of the collateral damage, but our interests are disconnected from the solution in Iraq.

    ISIS was pragmatic in its brutality, the enemy of the US is everyone’s friend in the Middle East. To the extent our video game version of warfare with technologically advanced systems and our abstraction of ‘no boots on the ground’ that Iraq becomes Somalia and Yemen represents progress or a goal, because torturing language to justify violence has become an American ideal. We will carefully only kill the guilty, there will be videos of silhouettes in the desert disappearing in a cloud of dust and sand, but each of those silhouettes are a real person with a son or daughter. I never had to deal with anyone in my family dying just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I know I wouldn’t blame them first.

  6. flypusher says:

    Also, since it is 9-11

    We should all be proud of how NYC picked up the pieces.

  7. flypusher says:

    Well said. Enlightened self interest is the best way to go with foreign affairs. That means that you don’t expect anybody to be acting from pure altruism, but you also can’t expect to get 100% of what you want 100% of the time, even if you are a superpower.

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