Max Americana

Max Americana

Mini Teaser: Do the presidents who are pushiest abroad get the most done?

by Author(s): John B. Judis

Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 416 pp., $28.95.

IN Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich, a former official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations and now a professor of international relations at Columbia, has written a history of American foreign policy since World War II. Many of the details are not original. Sestanovich relies for the most part on published histories and memoirs rather than on archival sources. But Sestanovich tells the story well and his interpretation of what the history means makes the book worth considering.

Following the lead of Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who divided American political history into cycles of liberalism and conservatism, Sestanovich divides the history of post–World War II foreign policy into periods of what he calls “maximalism” and periods of retrenchment. It’s an old demarcation—first voiced by Walter Lippmann and George Kennan after World War II in a debate over the extent to which the United States should attempt to counter Soviet Communism—but Sestanovich brings it up to date and by the book’s end tips his hand about which course he would prefer.

He doesn’t say in so many words what maximalism and retrenchment are, but his meaning can be gleaned from his examples. Maximalists want to increase the military budget; they want American power to shape the world, with or without allied backing, and are willing to risk war to get their way. Maximalists, Sestanovich writes, “assumed that international problems were highly susceptible to the vigorous use of American power.” Retrenchers, by contrast, believe that America must cut back its global reach either for budgetary reasons or because of opposition from other powers. They preach the limits of power. They think America needs to pay more attention to “nation building” at home than overseas.

Sestanovich arranges the cycles by presidential administrations in the following way:

Maximalists: Harry Truman (after 1946), John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson (after 1965), Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (after September 11, 2001).

Retrenchers: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Mixed: George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Sestanovich is critical of both maximalists and retrenchers, but he attributes the great successes of American foreign policy to maximalism. “The United States achieved a great deal precisely by being uncompromising and confrontational,” he writes. “Had Truman accepted a graceful exit from Berlin, had Kennedy found a way to live with missiles in Cuba, had Reagan backed away from his zero option, the Cold War would have unfolded very differently—and in all likelihood, not nearly so well.”

Sestanovich sees little virtue in retrenchment. “Retrenchment can go from being seen as a strategy for averting decline to being seen as one that accelerates and even embraces it,” he writes. Sestanovich uses a passive, evasive formulation (“being seen” by whom?), but he seems to be suggesting that the United States is always facing new challenges for which retrenchment invariably leaves it unprepared—Sputnik for Eisenhower, Soviet heavy missiles for Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for Carter and the Arab Spring for Obama.

SESTANOVICH IS certainly right that maximalism is responsible for notable foreign-policy successes, but he acknowledges that it is also responsible for our greatest failures, which brought forth periods of retrenchment. Truman’s abortive attempt to unify the Korean Peninsula, which precipitated a Chinese invasion, led to Eisenhower’s retrenchment; Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War led to Nixon’s retrenchment; and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq led to Obama’s retrenchment. The United States is still reeling from Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

But Sestanovich blames these failures on what amount to correctable errors. The Truman administration screwed up in Korea because of overreach. Having driven the North Koreans out of the South, Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, discounting the Chinese threat, became determined to unify the peninsula. Sestanovich suggests that if General Douglas MacArthur, the American commander, had pulled his forces back from the Chinese border at the first inkling of China’s intervention, the United States could have held most of North Korea against the Chinese.

Likewise, Sestanovich says that in Vietnam, Johnson should have accepted the advice in 1966 of General Victor Krulak to limit troop involvement in the South while escalating the air war in the North. And in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, he argues, the U.S. strategy became hostage to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s rejection of nation building. “This early mishandling of the occupation,” Sestanovich writes, “had a lasting impact on U.S. policy.”

But in most of these cases, Washington’s strategy was probably irredeemable. The Chinese still could have created a stalemate in Korea. During the Vietnam War, Krulak’s advice to Johnson anticipated what would become Richard Nixon’s strategy of escalation in the North and Vietnamization in the South. At best, following this advice would have let Johnson achieve the kind of agreement that Nixon later signed with the North Vietnamese. But it certainly would not have prevented the fall of South Vietnam. In Iraq, a larger occupation force and a more sophisticated occupation strategy might at best have delayed the onset of the anti-American rebellion and the civil war between Sunni and Shia forces. The lesson I would draw is that maximalism and retrenchment succeed or fail depending upon the circumstances in which they are pursued. The real difference is in the circumstances.

If you look at the different successes and failures, Sestanovich’s instances of success came from America facing down the Soviet Union, and his failures from America attempting to impose its will on nations that had been the victims of European, American and Japanese colonialism. In the latter situations, the United States ended up replicating the strategy and assumptions of an imperial power, and it encountered a resistance that was based on a century-old nationalism, even if sometimes, as in Latin America or Asia, it came under the banner of Communism. The United States failed in Vietnam as the French had earlier, and it encountered the same resistance in Iraq that the British had faced after World War I. These failures didn’t have to do with specific tactics, but with an unwillingness to accept basic facts about what came to be called the North-South conflict. Two world wars had been fought over the spoils of empire. Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin had already endorsed self-determination for the colonized, and new anti-imperial movements and leaders had emerged that brooked no compromise.

Take Sestanovich’s portrayal of John Kennedy as the arch maximalist. “John Kennedy and his team were probably the most activist group ever put in charge of American foreign policy,” he writes. Kennedy and his foreign-policy advisers became reluctant to act, however, because they had difficulty making decisions. “They were exceedingly indecisive managers of policy, given to protracted and inconclusive deliberation,” he writes. But where Kennedy most exhibited indecision was in choosing whether, and to what degree, to intervene in Southeast Asia, and that wasn’t just a product of being indecisive, but also of the special circumstances of the region.

Sestanovich depicts Kennedy as eager to intervene in Vietnam, quoting him as saying that the Roman Empire’s “success was dependent on their will and ability to fight successfully at the edges of their empire.” But he recounts how Kennedy was undecided about how to wage the fight. That may have been because Kennedy understood that he was getting into a situation that didn’t call for activism.

In Lessons in Disaster, an excellent study of the Kennedy era based on the papers of McGeorge Bundy, the president’s national-security adviser, Gordon M. Goldstein attributes Kennedy’s reluctance to escalate American participation in the Vietnam War to his understanding of colonialism and nationalism:

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a congressman in 1951 when 250,000 French troops, aided by 200,000 pro-French Vietnamese, were fighting the Vietnamese Communist forces. From the French defeat, he drew the lesson that if the United States were to send troops, and not merely attempt to advise and train the South Vietnamese regime, it would turn what had been a civil war against a Communist insurgency into a struggle between the U.S. and a colonized people struggling for independence. The U.S., like France, would be bound to lose this kind of war. It wouldn’t be fighting communism, but nationalism.

Goldstein also writes that Kennedy told his aides that if he were reelected in 1964, he would withdraw from Vietnam. In this respect, as in his accepting a neutral Laos, Kennedy may not have been such a maximalist after all.

The jury is still out on what Kennedy would have done, and whether he really understood the perils of a neoimperial strategy in Southeast Asia, but there is no question that Lyndon Johnson did not. Johnson and his advisers saw nationalism and anticolonialism through the prism of the Cold War struggle against Soviet Communism. Other presidents also failed to distinguish East-West from North-South conflicts. Truman and Acheson were under enormous political pressure from Republicans charging that they had “lost” China, but still they seem to have accepted the false premise of this charge—that the loss of the former victim of European and Japanese colonialism was tantamount to a defeat in a worldwide struggle against Soviet Communism. In 1950, they dismissed a British suggestion that they distinguish Chinese from Soviet Communism. Johnson, Nixon and Reagan didn’t understand anti-imperialism in Latin America or the Middle East, and George W. Bush and his neoconservative and liberal boosters certainly didn’t understand Iraq. Those failures, more than any commitment to maximalism or retrenchment, doomed the foreign policy of these presidents.

Pullquote: The history of retrenchment, like that of maximalism, is studded with successes as well as failures.Image: Essay Types: Book Review