President Obama’s critics regularly accuse him of being too cautious when it comes to using the US military. And indeed, Obama himself formalized a restrained approach on Feb. 6 when he issued his National Security Strategy.
“We must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power,” the president wrote. “The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence.”
But here’s what Obama’s critics miss: His cautious approach fits well with the most successful mode of foreign crisis management since Harry Truman’s time.
The overall box score: Two bold successes, eight cautious successes, both short- and long-term; five bold failures; and two cautious debacles.
Only one president earned a stellar rating, a cautious John F. Kennedy. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he resisted the Pentagon’s push for air strikes and an invasion of Cuba and took an incremental first step, the naval quarantine. That allowed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev room to back away, and the two men made a deal to end the crisis.
A bold failure was Bill Clinton’s response to Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa. Although he sent cruise missiles into Al Qaeda training camps — and destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory erroneously thought to be a chemical-weapons facility — the terrorist group quickly resumed operations.
Between those stark examples fall crises with more complex circumstances. For example, Harry Truman initially handled North Korea well with a bold military reaction, but his later overreach triggered a deadly Chinese counterattack. In contrast, the caution Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon displayed during the Mideast wars of 1967 and 1973 proved a successful response.
When Cambodia seized American merchant seamen in 1975, Gerald Ford overreacted; 18 US servicemen died after the Mayaguez crew had been released, rendering Ford’s bold action only a qualified success. Contrariwise, Jimmy Carter’s patience finally paid off for US hostages in Iran, though he nearly botched things with a failed rescue attempt. Ronald Reagan forcefully punished Libya in 1986 for terrorism in Berlin, but Libya responded with more violence, including the 1988 destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
President George W. Bush boldly ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. But Osama bin Laden escaped, and Bush’s under-resourcing of the Afghan war and quick pivot to Iraq led to a long-term foreign policy blunder.
Every recent president has yearned to take bold action to right wrongs, rescue Americans, and punish perpetrators.
But as most of the 12 presidents since 1950 have learned, myriad complications stand in the way of a bold response in a crisis. Every incident starts in the fog of war. Ambiguous intelligence or faulty interpretations of that intelligence limit options. The United States often lacks powerful leverage in a crisis; sanctions, aircraft carriers, and drones can’t fix everything.
The dangers of groupthink always loom; conversely, disagreement among advisers can lead to watered-down responses. And the risk of escalation to a larger — even a nuclear — war is always a limiting factor.
Given all that, there are seldom options that don’t carry serious consequences. Yet armchair quarterbacks regularly shout, “Do something!” without contemplating those consequences.
President Obama dealt with two of the 17 crises I examined. In Libya four years ago, his mildly bold first step — humanitarian-based intervention — succeeded in the short term. He didn’t, however, plan for coping with the chaos that ultimately followed.
But this president learned from his mistake. As he later told reporters, each time he contemplates military intervention, he now asks: “Do we have an answer [for] the day after?”
Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama, then in the heat of his re-election campaign, declared that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons would trigger US military action. One of Obama’s handlers said afterward that it had been an ad-lib statement, adding: “We’re kind of boxed in.”
The Syrian military blatantly crossed that red line on Aug. 21, 2013, killing 1,400 people with chemical weapons. Both Congress and the public opposed Obama’s planned military retaliation, so the president opted to seek congressional authority.
A subsequent deal with Russia — one that was not as ad hoc as it seemed at the time — not only negated a Hill vote, but also arranged for removal of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal. Although blasted as timid by critics, that cautious, temporized approach ended up being a moderately successful strategy.
The upshot: The past 65 years of international crises have shown that cautious presidents have succeeded more often than aggressive ones. Patience is not dithering when the stakes are high and the decisions are tough.
Michael K. Bohn was director of the White House Situation Room during Ronald Reagan’s second term. His latest book, “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama,” was released last week.