SCHOLARS AND specialists often lament that once the United States commits itself to a course of action abroad, it rarely adjusts its path. Bureaucracies prize continuity over innovation and cling to the prevailing orthodoxy. Top officials often embrace positions predetermined by past prejudices and lessons. The gravitational pull of politics induces presidents and secretaries of state to persist with existing policies even when they aren’t working. Although such inflexibility may not be particularly harmful in ordinary times, big problems can arise when the United States finds itself in uncharted territory or facing unexpected geopolitical shifts.
This reality raises the question of how the country can move from failure to success. How do policy makers transcend their penchant for the familiar and bureaucracies move beyond their attachment to continuity? History tells us that mere presidential frustration with a failed policy does not always bring about change. Consider Lyndon Johnson’s failed Vietnam War policy from 1965 to 1968. Presidents facing multiple national issues rarely start over with entirely new strategic paradigms. Inertia, staff influences and operational prejudices all militate against that.
But there are exceptions worthy of study. In essence, for the United States to move from failure to success, three things must happen. Failure must be seen as posing a cataclysmic threat to both national security and the political fortunes of the incumbent party. A plausible alternative strategy must be evident. And a senior policy maker who enjoys presidential trust and confidence must embrace that alternative, convince the president of its viability and subtly impose it on the system.