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U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes

U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes

by Stephen Walker, Akan Malici

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Mistakes, in the form of bad decisions, are a common feature of every presidential administration, and their consequences run the gamut from unnecessary military spending, to missed opportunities for foreign policy advantage, to needless bloodshed. This book analyzes a range of presidential decisions made in the realm of US foreign policy—with a special focus


Mistakes, in the form of bad decisions, are a common feature of every presidential administration, and their consequences run the gamut from unnecessary military spending, to missed opportunities for foreign policy advantage, to needless bloodshed. This book analyzes a range of presidential decisions made in the realm of US foreign policy—with a special focus on national security—over the past half century in order to create a roadmap of the decision process and a guide to better foreign policy decision-making in the increasingly complex context of 21st century international relations.

Mistakes are analyzed in two general categories—ones of omission and ones of commission within the context of perceived threats and opportunities. Within this framework, the authors discuss how past scholarship has addressed these questions and argue that this research has not explicitly identified a vantage point around which the answers to these questions revolve. They propose game theory models of complex adaptive systems for minimizing bad decisions and apply them to test cases in the Middle East and Asia.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Walker and Malici have produced a rich study that reviews a wide range of US foreign policy mistakes over the past century . . . The real strength of the Walker and Malici analysis is in the typology of mistakes along two different dimensions: failures of analysis and of prescription and the mistakes of omission and commission—sometimes the United States does too much too soon, and sometimes it does too little too late. The exercise of laying out this typology and illustrating each type of mistake with a series of prototypical cases is helpful and constructive to the literature on decision making and on American foreign policy."—Jon Western, Perspectives on Politics

"In this impressive research, Walker and Malici address the serious consequences of US presidents' foreign policy mistakes that proved costly to the US in terms of lives and money. . . Recommended."—K. M. Zaarour, CHOICE

"[B]oth the ambition and scope of the book are admirable."—Robert Jervis, Political Science Quarterly

"Depth-breadth trade-offs are unavoidable in all scholarship: but not here. This book does a superb job of integrating historical, game-theoretic, and psychological approaches and deepening our understanding of how to avoid miscalculations that can cause grievous harm on a massive scale."—Philip E. Tetlock, Annenberg University Professor, University of Pennsylvania

"In a world of uncertainty where mistakes are unavoidable facts of daily life for citizens and politicians alike, how politicians will be able to avoid foreign policy mistakes is the main concern of this book. There are some other questions of crucial importance which the book deals with: What are foreign policy mistakes and how and why do they occur? The answers to those questions are available in this book, and it concentrates on the concept of power."—Özden Zeynep Oktav, Insight Turkey

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Stanford University Press
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New Edition
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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By Stephen G. Walker Akan Malici

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7499-4

Chapter One

Mistakes as a Feature of Everyday Political Life


In the Apology, Plato recounts Socrates' inquiry into human wisdom. The story begins with the journey of Socrates' pupil, Chaerephon, to the Oracle in Delphi where he asks the question, "Who is the wisest of all men?" The Oracle responds, "No one is wiser than Socrates." The pupil reports this to Socrates who, knowing that he himself is not wise, subsequently seeks out a politician reputed for his wisdom and aims to demonstrate the fallibility of the Oracle. To his disappointment, Socrates finds that the politician has no wisdom either, although the politician thinks of himself as wise. Socrates concludes, "Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think I know" (Plato 1892, 21). In the end it is this recognition, Socrates' self-awareness, that vindicates the Oracle.

Philosophers from Socrates through Michel de Montaigne, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, and Isaiah Berlin remind us that true wisdom and full knowledge may be a utopian fantasy. They instead argue that uncertainty is an inescapable fact of human life. They stress that any action, however carefully undertaken, involves the risk of error and potentially disastrous consequences. Indeed, uncertainty may be one of only two certainties in life. The other is that humans will go on making statements and engaging in risky action even in a world of uncertainty. The obvious implication is the need to develop a calculus of action under the condition of uncertainty. The philosophers' answer to this need is rather simple. The desired calculus is an ethic of humility and modesty.

The governance of a state requires more. In The Republic, Plato (2000, 191) likens this task to the command of a ship sailing an ocean of uncertainty:

Imagine ... one ship and a state of affairs on board something like this. There's the shipowner, larger and stronger than everyone in the ship, but deaf and rather short-sighted, with a knowledge of sailing to match his eyesight. The sailors are quarrelling among themselves over captaincy of the ship, each one thinking that he ought to be the captain, though he has never learned the skill, nor can he point to the person who taught him or a time when he was learning.

The combination of an ocean of relative uncertainty sailed by a ship of human beings with significantly limited powers of navigation is clearly a recipe for the inevitable making of mistakes. Indeed, in much of what humans set out to undertake, they are surrounded by uncertainty and bounded in skills or otherwise. Such is the human condition. Some of these human shortcomings are identified in contemporary terms by Robyn Dawes (1976), who describes how cognitive and motivated biases lead to limitations of the human mind in processing information from the environment without distortions (see also Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky 1982; Bell, Raiffa, and Tversky 1988). These biases appear in the form of ideologies, self-convictions, emotions, memories, misperceptions, and other contingent elements of the human mind that make us apt to make mistakes. They affect ordinary people and, of course, also leaders as they steer the ship of state. The tragedy is that neither ordinary people nor state leaders are always aware of their biases or their mistakes, and the latter are only discovered with the benefit of hindsight.

An exchange in the aftermath of 9/11 and following the U.S. invasion of Iraq underlines the importance of the insights of Plato and Dawes. It has also served as the immediate catalyst for this book about foreign policy mistakes. In a news conference on April 13, 2004, President George W. Bush was asked to name his biggest mistake since 9/11 and what lessons he had learned since then. In his response Bush joked, "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it." He then took a longer pause before adding, "I am sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't [sic] yet." Ultimately, the president wandered in his meandering style from affirming his decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq to stating his unshaken belief that the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and would be inclined to put them to use. In the end, President Bush could not identify any mistakes he had made since 9/11.

One may wonder whether the president's remarks were simply ingenuous, a reflection of his character, or an indication of a real puzzle that needs to be investigated. In this book we assume the third possibility, that foreign policy mistakes pose a real puzzle. One can be confident that presidential historians, political scientists, and commentators will judge President Bush to have made genuine mistakes. This assertion follows from recognizing that mistakes are unavoidable facts of daily life for citizens and politicians alike. This inescapable fact plagued the first U.S. president and every one of his successors, and will also befall every future president of the country. Given the ubiquity of this problem, we ask a series of fundamental questions in this book: What are foreign policy mistakes? How and why do they occur? What can be done to avoid them?

It may come as no surprise that scholars have focused on mistakes in the past. What distinguishes this book from some previous efforts is that our answers to these questions center on a single concept—that of power. Power has more than one meaning, including the manifestation of physical power in the form of force or energy in physics, the actual exercise of social power in the form of control by an agent over a patient in social systems, and the capacity of an agent to exercise either social or physical power in politics (McClelland 1966). The ambiguity in the meaning of power leads analysts to discount or qualify its use for explaining human behavior (Haas 1953; Claude 1962; Brams 1994, 121). Others emphasize that the exercise of power is at the core of human interactions and, specified properly, offers important insights into human behavior (Dahl 1957; French and Raven 1959; Bachrach and Baratz 1962; Emerson 1962, 1976; McClelland 1966; Lukes 1974; Baldwin 1979; Morgenthau 1985; Gelb 2009). We shall take the latter position and apply these conceptualizations of power at some length throughout this book to explain foreign policy mistakes.

At the core of our book is Vladimir Lenin's famous question, "ktokovo?" regarding the exercise of power, translated literally as "who-whom?" and understood as "who (can destroy, control, utilize) whom?" (Leites 1953, 27– 29). Our general argument is that improper, inaccurate, or misinformed answers to this question specify and explain mistakes by the makers of policy. Conversely, we claim that correct answers can avoid mistakes and reduce policy failures. Although all politics requires policy makers to answer correctly Lenin's question in order to avoid mistakes, our specific concern in this book is with U.S. presidents and foreign policy mistakes.

When presidents commit mistakes, they are costly regardless of whether they occur in the arena of domestic politics or international politics. Presidential mistakes in the domain of international politics, however, can be, and often are, more costly and deadly than in any other policy area. The U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are cases in point. Good judgment can avoid wars or win them while poor judgment can start wars or lose them (Renshon and Larson 2003, vii). International political history is full of disastrous decisions and avoidable mistakes by leaders who have put not only the country's troops in harm's way but also the safety and well-being of the entire nation.

The study of questions about foreign policy mistakes is perhaps more pressing than ever. The bipolar cold war order, with its rather well-defined rules, is passé for two de cades. The events of 9/11 have introduced us to a world in which the ancient Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times," would seem to condemn us to a life of uncertainty, flux, and danger. Following 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, new challenges are emerging. U.S. relations with Syria and Iran are troublesome. Generally, the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate and could easily lead to another full-scale war with U.S. involvement. Also of concern are the tensions between nuclear powers Pakistan and India, which may compel the United States to get involved. Analysts also have imagined scenarios with heavy U.S. military engagement as a response to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea. The United States' future may well depend on whether and how U.S. presidents make or avoid mistakes in the face of these and many other challenges.

In the remainder of this chapter we review the academic scholarship on mistakes. Our hope is that by the end of this exercise we will have established a general understanding of what foreign mistakes are and why they occur. While insights from past scholarship on foreign policy mistakes will help guide our inquiry, we hope in the next chapter to provide a more systematic, rigorous, and policy-relevant framework for foreign policy analysis and evaluation.


It might at first seem unnecessary to define what constitutes a mistake. Indeed, it is tempting to simply borrow from Justice Potter Stewart's assessment of pornography and accept that we will know a mistake when we see it. However, in a way this approach is too simple and, moreover, it is not true. If what counts (or should count) as a mistake is only in the eye of the beholder, then serious analysis may degenerate quickly into partisan debate and an inability or unwillingness to recognize a mistake—witness President Bush's inability to name a single mistake and the partisan divide over his decision to invade Iraq on March 20, 2003. What we seek is a more objective standard from which one can judge mistakes more reliably.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary (1994, 534), the word "mistake" means "an error or fault" or "a misconception or misunderstanding" and comes from the old Norse mistaka, "take in error." The same source (p. 288) defines "error" as derived from the Latin errare, "wander," and offers three definitions: "1. An unintentional deviation from is [sic] what is correct, right, or true. 2. The condition of being incorrect or wrong. 3. Baseball. A defensive misplay." These definitions highlight important similarities and differences in mistakes. They share the common feature of "wandering," that is, deviating from some standard of "rectitude" (error) or "truth" (understanding), which implies a standard or context (e.g., a baseball game) in which to identify the nature of the deviation. Two different dimensions of mistakes are also implied: behavioral (misplay) and cognitive (misconception).

Underlying all of these features is the assumption that all mistakes are procedural (i.e., they are cognitive or behavioral phenomena that should not be confused with their consequences or outcomes). The importance of a given mistake in thought or action is often judged by its effects. If a baseball player makes a defensive misplay that costs his team a victory, it carries greater weight in human affairs. It is important to remember that although a procedural mistake may lead to a substantive failure, a causal connection is not always present. Sometimes failures occur despite the absence of mistakes, and even when mistakes occur, they do not necessarily affect the outcome. The occurrence of a misplay in baseball that yields an unearned run does not affect the outcome of the game when the score is already so lopsided in favor of one team that the outcome is not in doubt. It is also possible for mistakes to follow failure—a team that is behind may try too hard and make a misplay.

It is also important to realize that other causes besides mistakes influence success or failure in both sports and politics. It is wise as well to remember that sometimes there is a tension between avoiding mistakes and avoiding defeat. The well-known sportswriter Grantland Rice made the famous observation, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." A lesser-known baseball manager, Leo ("the Lip") Durocher, is also famous for his brash comment, "Nice guys finish last." Together they remind us that in baseball the players are goal oriented and sometimes forget or ignore the rules of the game in order to achieve those goals. More generally, failures in everyday life come in two forms: mistakes are procedural failures whereas outcomes are substantive failures. And sometimes it is possible to achieve substantive successes at the price of procedural failures.

These insights apply to political life. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them according to the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed a couple of weeks before the outbreak of war. Although this agreement called for the two dictators to settle disputes between them without the use of force, Germany invaded the Soviet Union almost two years later and forced the Red Army out of its part of occupied Poland. This reversal of relationships between the two totalitarian regimes also brought Russia into World War II on the side of Britain and the exiled government of Poland in London. London Poles pressed immediately to learn more about the whereabouts and welfare of Polish prisoners of war captured earlier by Soviet forces in 1939 (Herz 1966).

Previous inquiries had yielded vague reports of their hasty evacuation from Poland far behind the lines into Russia ahead of the invading Nazi forces. When Nazi forces near Smolensk discovered the graves of these prisoners in 1943, the Soviet Union attempted to blame the Germans. However, forensic evidence at the site in the Katyn Forest pointed toward the Russians as their executioners in 1939 (Herz 1966, 45– 46, 66– 67). It was also a decision recognized as an error of some kind by Lavrenti Beria, the Soviet secret police chief, who reportedly declared to some Polish members of the London exile government as early as the spring of 1940 that "a great mistake had been made" with respect to the then-missing Polish prisoners of war (Herz 1966, 45).

What exactly was the Soviet mistake associated with this decision? At the time of their capture in 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany were fighting the Poles as a common foe. In addition to the moral mistake of violating the rules of international law for the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs), the Soviets were guided by Stalinist ideology that diagnosed the POWs as class enemies and potential counterrevolutionaries in territory that had been part of the old tsarist empire. The prisoners were reserve officers in the Polish army who occupied elite civilian positions in Polish society when they were not mobilized for active duty. When the Soviet Union executed these soldiers, they were also purging the potential leaders of an opposition movement to the partition of Poland between Russia and Germany (Herz 1966).

The "great mistake" of execution rather than imprisonment prevented the Soviet Union from repatriating these officers when the Soviet Union and Poland became de facto allies against Germany after the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941. When the truth came out about their fate, it became an important local cause of the cold war's beginnings between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II. The Katyn Forest massacre alienated Russia from Poland's exile government in London. In turn, this estrangement contributed significantly to a breakdown in the implementation of the Declaration on Poland signed by Russia, Britain, and the United States at the Yalta conference in 1945, which called for free elections and a demo cratic government in Poland. Ultimately, this failure was one of the issues that converted the two superpowers from peaceful partners to cold warriors following the end of World War II (Herz 1966, 76–112).


Excerpted from U.S. PRESIDENTS AND FOREIGN POLICY MISTAKES by Stephen G. Walker Akan Malici Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stephen G. Walker is Professor Emeritus in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. Akan Malici is Associate Professor at Furman University.

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