Mistakes Were Made: America's Five Biggest Foreign-Policy Fiascoes

There were dubious decisions in the nineteenth century, but it was in the twentieth that misguided adventures were really in vogue.

    The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has raised arguments on the part of some, including myself, that this ominous turn of events in the Middle East flows directly from the regional destabilization wrought by President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, ruled by a brutal thug of a dictator who, nonetheless, was not part of the threat of jihadist Islam facing the West. Certainly, this presidential decision must rank among the five greatest foreign-policy fiascoes in American history.

    That raises a couple questions: What are the other top-five foreign-policy fiascoes? And how should they be ranked within the top-five list?

    Before entering into an exploration of that question, perhaps we should establish some definitions. First, we’re talking about presidential decision-making, so we should concentrate on decisions that were volitional, matters of choice and not dictated by the force of events. Second, the result must be significantly negative for the country in historical terms.

    Some people might want to include, for example, James K. Polk’s actions designed to maneuver the country into the Mexican War in 1846. Certainly, the war still generates controversy among many Americans. But that war brought a vast expanse of territory into the American union, and that must be viewed as a significant benefit to a restless nation—unless, perhaps, one wants to argue that America should never have become the vibrant, expanding, great-power nation that it became. Though the war still has many critics, few have argued that those acquired lands should be relinquished.

    Similarly, some might include James Madison’s decision, under pressure from a lusty Congress, to take his country into the War of 1812. Many have argued that the proximate cause of that war—British impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy—didn’t really get settled in the peace negotiations at Ghent, and so the war was an unnecessary waste. But students of the war note that the United States gained a great deal by thwarting British plans to take control over the crucial strategic territory around the Great Lakes and into the upper Mississippi Valley. Absent that, America never could have become the nation we know today.

    My own list doesn’t include any nineteenth-century presidential decisions. Perhaps that’s because the country wasn’t inclined toward the kind of foreign-policy adventurism we’ve seen since the second decade of the twentieth century. The more adventurism, it seems, the greater is the likelihood for things to go awry. But it also may be attributable, at least in part, to the zesty spirit of the nation during its first century or so. That spirit contributed to an expansionist fervor and national confidence that keep the country moving so inexorably that impediments were simply brushed aside. It isn’t difficult to avoid fiascoes when the national momentum is so high.

    Had Polk’s war turned into defeat, for example, as it easily could have, then that president’s war decision would have been seen in history as a fiasco. But there was too much force and verve in the American polity to let that happen. The same is true of William McKinley’s Spanish-American War, which yielded a costly necessity to fight a subsequent insurgency in the Philippines. But the ultimate benefits of America’s venture into the world as naval power, both to the nation and to global stability, outweighed that price.

    And so we turn to the twentieth century, when things didn’t go quite so well all the time. In reverse order, beginning with Number Five, here are my candidates:

    Fifth-Greatest Fiasco: The Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. This was ill-conceived from the beginning, given that the chief mastermind of this operation, the CIA, thought it could bring about regime change on that well-fortified island on the cheap, by sending in a small force of mostly Cuban exiles that lacked the kind of support that any such invasion would require. Much has been written about the decision of John Kennedy, who inherited the planned operation, to forego any contingency use of air power if the paltry landing party encountered difficulty, which it did. But it isn’t likely that a force of fifteen hundred ill-trained soldiers was going to upend the entrenched regime of Fidel Castro, even with air support.

    Scores were mowed down by Castro’s air force, and most of the invaders were captured. It was a huge black eye for Kennedy and his country, and it undermined America’s image of fortitude at a crucial time in the Cold War. It also gave an appearance to the outside world that America’s national security leadership wasn’t quite up to the task of dealing with the seemingly more sure-footed Soviets. It is likely that it led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year, which posed a very serious danger of nuclear war, though that was averted by Kennedy’s deft handling.