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August 04, 2011

The Best and Worst Foreign Policy Presidents UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Atlantic I have a new piece up that looks at the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the last 100 years. (Sorry Heather, the Big Man didn't make the best list).

It was a enjoyable piece to write, but it's hardly declarative - and as several people have pointed out to me over the weekend I'm probably far too generous to John F. Kennedy, who makes the best list, and far too harsh to Richard Nixon, who makes the worst list. This is a pretty fair critique and if I had my druthers I'd put both men somewhere in the middle, but the need for editorial symmetry was too strong! Nonetheless, in my book JFK earns deservedly big points for effective crisis management during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon is weighed down by his excesses in Southeast Asia. Others will disagree, but of course that's half of the fun - so let me know what you think DA readers.

Read the whole thing here

Update: I'm a bit getting back to this as I've been traveling on the West Coast and trying to have something resembling a vacation. I've gotten some interesting reactions to this piece, most of which, as I noted above, flay me for giving JFK too much credit and being too harsh on Nixon. All fair criticisms in my view.

Carl Prine has a pretty good take on this, along with a very nice shout out to my wife.

To my mind the most controversal argument I've made is putting Truman in the worst column of FP presidents. Indeed there are many good counter-arguments to my infatuation with Cold War revisionist history and my dislike of Truman . . . unfortunately in his response to me piece at FP Dan Drezner has not made it.

I have a number of quibbles with Drezner's take, but there is one that really jumps out to me.

Here's what I wrote on Truman:

Beyond Korea, the Truman Doctrine and its declaration that it was the "policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" laid the groundwork for the limitless definition of US national interests that unfolded over the next 60 years. As Kennan would later note, it was one thing to contain Communism in Europe (a goal on which Truman succeeded). It was quite another to broaden that goal to the rest of the world. There is, as a result, a straight line between Truman's foreign policy choices and the war in Vietnam.

Responds Drezner: "Right, this is why Eisenhower felt compelled to intervene in Vietnam during Dien Bien Phu -- oh, wait, as Cohen points out in his Eisenhower write-up, he did the exact opposite of that.  I don't buy straight-line arguments that take two decades to play out."   

I don't understand this argument. According to Drezner, because Ike didn't send ground troops or utilize air power to save the French in Dien Bien Phu there is no connective thread between his foreign policy of containing Communism and Harry Truman's foreign policy of containing communism.

So the fact that Ike did fight plenty of anti-Communist wars on the periphery, which was consistent with the NSC-68 strategy of containing Communism everywhere and continued a pattern of behavior begun under Truman, is something he sort of dreamed up on his own? And what about the fact that while Ike didn't send troops to bail out the French . . he did send military advisors to assist South Vietnam, a move that laid the groundwork for the longer-term US intervention to come by making the protection of South Vietnam from Communist takeover a key US foreign policy objective? Or what about the fact that Eisenhower bizarrely recommened to Kennedy that he consider using military force in Laos when he left office in 1960?

Moreover, we know that JFK and certainly LBJ continued to escalate the US presence in Vietnam. They did so, in part because of the domestic anti-Communist consensus and NSC-68 doctrine ushered in by one Harry S Truman. In addition, because of the existential nature by which Truman promoted the Communist threat it put significant political pressure on all of his successors to show sufficient rigor in combatting the Red threat. As I noted in my original article the politicization of the Cold War and anti-Communism was one of Truman's worst legacies (and nothat's not the same thing as Ike using fears of Communism to push for new highways and educational programs. Cynical yes, but not necessarily malevolent).

To be honest, the idea that there is a connective thread between Harry Truman's expansive definition of US national interests, as laid out in the Truman Doctrine, and his policy of containing Communism everywhere and JFK and LBJ's escalation in Vietnam is perhaps one of the least controversial arguments I think I've ever made in print. So if Drezner doesn't think there is a straight line between Truman's Cold War policies and Vietnam (for better or for worse) does that mean our involvement in Vietnam simply materialized out of thin air?


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I thought that you were a bit too hard on Jimmy Carter since he got the Arabs and the Israelis to sign the Camp David Accords which has given the Middle East thirty-five years of relative peace. George H.W. Bush has an overrated reputation in the area of foreign policy. George H.W. Bush encouraged a newly reunified Germany to join NATO that has led to further NATO expansion and the poisoning of the American-Russian relationship. Also George H.W. Bush failed to stop the former Yugoslavia from descending ino civil war and ethnic cleansing. Moreover George H.W. Bush mishandled the ending of the Gulf War by encouraging the Kurds and Shiites to rise against Saddan Hussein, but did nothing to help them achieve their goal. Finally George H.W. Bush sent soldiers into Somalia without an endgame in 1992.

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