Overlearning the lessons of history

February 4, 2016 David Adesnik
Pete Souza, The White House

This series of Issue 2 response posts are written by former Miller Center fellows who offer their perspective on the topic of national security and how to best prepare the next president for the challenges of the first year.

In the spring of 2014, the White House came under fire for the alleged incoherence of its foreign policy. Rather than brushing off the criticism, White House aides began to tell reporters that there was one simple principle at the heart of the President’s foreign policy: “Don’t do stupid shit” (or “stuff”). In just four words, this phrase drew an implicit contrast between the caution of Barack Obama and the recklessness attributed to his predecessor. It also played upon the disparity between Obama’s much-admired intellect and the reputation of George W. Bush as supposedly incurious or even dumb. With unusual speed, “Don’t do stupid stuff” became the functional equivalent of the Obama Doctrine.

Unexpectedly, this public relations coup soon became a serious liability. Less than a month after the phrase entered circulation, the Islamic State launched an offensive that crippled the Iraqi military while delivering major cities such as Mosul into extremist hands. The Islamic State then shocked the United States by beheading American journalists on camera. For critics of the President, “Don’t do stupid stuff” became an affirmation of complacency and passivity in the face of a growing storm. Yet as the country looks ahead to this year’s elections and the inauguration of the next president, the most salient lesson of this episode may be the extent to which presidents—even those deep into their second term—define their foreign policies in opposition to the perceived failings of their predecessor.

Among presidents, the tendency to overcompensate for a predecessor’s alleged mistakes is not the exception but the rule. It is well documented in the seven essays that the Miller Center has published as part of its First Year 2017 project. In his examination of George W. Bush’s first year in office, Melvyn Leffler describes “an administration steadfastly committed to changing direction from anything linked to Clinton.” Some labeled this policy “ABC”, or “Anything But Clinton.” Leffler argues that the Bush White House may have paid greater attention to terrorist threats before 9/11 if it had listened to Clinton administration veterans such as CIA director George Tenet and counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke.

What Bill Clinton learned from his predecessor was the danger of focusing too much on foreign policy. Despite the extraordinary approval ratings George H.W. Bush garnered after the U.S. victory in the Gulf War, he lost his bid for re-election in part because of perceptions that he cared more about events abroad than the consequences of a recession at home. Clinton’s campaign manager summarized this lesson in the immortal words, “It’s the economy stupid.” As Jeremi Suri notes, an effective campaign strategy may not translate into a functional approach to governance. Suri writes, “With his focus on domestic economics, and his desire to avoid other hard choices and distractions, President Clinton encouraged continued foreign policy superficiality during his first year.” As a result, the administration struggled to deal with crises in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Rwanda.

Clearly, partisanship accounts for a measure of the hostility and contempt that Clinton, Bush, and Obama displayed toward the foreign policies of their predecessors. Yet the same sort of hostility may prevail even when the same party remains in power. Jeffrey Engel recounts how Secretary of State-designate James Baker announced, “This is not a friendly takeover,” during the transition from the Reagan administration to that of George H.W. Bush. Interestingly, after an initial period of hesitation to follow Reagan’s precedents, Bush and Baker arrived at the conclusion that some of Reagan’s most important policies were the right ones, especially the decision to cooperate closely with Mikhail Gorbachev. Perhaps it was easier for Bush and Baker to admit a fellow Republican had been right all along, than for later presidents to see the merits of predecessors who were also partisan opponents.

While Ronald Reagan certainly sought to reverse many of the policies of Jimmy Carter, Hal Brands observes that one of Reagan’s most important decisions represented a sort of overcompensation for an error attributed to Richard Nixon. In light of concerns that no one adviser should dominate the administration the way Henry Kissinger did under Nixon, Reagan downgraded the role of National Security Advisor. Instead of balance, the result was feuding and chaos that would only settle down after Reagan fired some of his initial appointees.

The risk that the next president will overlearn from the mistakes of his or her predecessor will depend greatly on whether Barack Obama is replaced by a Republican or a fellow Democrat. Republican candidates are almost unanimous in their denunciation of Obama’s foreign policy as weak and indecisive. Although much more delicately, Hillary Clinton has hinted at similar concerns, stating for example, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” In contrast, Bernie Sanders remains fixated on the same lessons of the George W. Bush era that have animated President Obama’s foreign policy. In fact, he has criticized Clinton and Obama for failing to learn the lesson that regime change always backfires, a lesson that should have militated against intervention in Libya.

Clearly, the lessons that a president learns are in many ways an extension of his or her ideology and partisan identity. (The same is true of historians.) Nonetheless, a lesson that may have appeal across the political spectrum is that new presidents ought to temper the desire to do precisely the opposite of their predecessors. Admittedly, since campaigns encourage candidates to denounce the status quo as forcefully as possible, and the thrill of victory tends to validate such denunciations, it is very hard to step back and ask whether one’s predecessor actually made the right choices on some important issues. However, a willingness to ask such questions may help the next president to avoid the classic mistake of overlearning the lessons of the recent past. 

David Adesnik is the Policy Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, where he focuses on defense and strategy issues.