Daniel W. Drezner

The Shatners of American foreign policy

As U.S. leaders contemplate military action against Syria, I read Stephen M. Walt’s list of American foreign policy "greatest hits" from last week with interest.   I like Walt’s list, but I really like the metaphor. We can go beyond the greatest hits to consider other questions — the most obscure but awesome B-sides, and so ...

As U.S. leaders contemplate military action against Syria, I read Stephen M. Walt’s list of American foreign policy "greatest hits" from last week with interest.   I like Walt’s list, but I really like the metaphor. We can go beyond the greatest hits to consider other questions — the most obscure but awesome B-sides, and so forth.

For this post, however, I was thinking about the obverse of Walt’s list — what are the clunkers of American foreign policy? What foreign policy decisions, policies or actions had such disastrous consequences that they can only remind you of… of… this:

In honor of the above clip, what are the "Shatners" of American foreign policy? I mean, what are the true clusterf*cks that constrained U.S. actions, haunted future generations of American policymakers, and wreaked the greatest costs on the rest of the world?

In ascending order, here’s my list:

10) Operation Continue Hope. This continuation of Operation Restore Hope got the U.S. embroiled in Somali clan politics that policymakers did not truly understand. This, in turn, led to the "Black Hawk Down" incident. This, in turn, led to a withdrawal from U.S. forces in Somalia over the next six months. Now, in and of itself, this would just be a minor hiccup in American foreign policy. It was so scarring to the Clinton administration, however, that is stopped the United States from intervening in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide in that country. And that’s more than a minor hiccup.

9) 1983 Beirut bombing. When Hezbollah killed more than 240 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, it inaugurated a whole lot of bad outcomes. The Reagan administration responded by pulling out U.S. forces soon afterwards. Hezbollah benefitted enormously from bloodying the nose of the United States. Iran gained a proxy near the Israeli border. And the innovation of suicide terrorism caught on.

8) Bay of Pigs. Again, confined to the operation itself, the Bay of Pigs was more a massive embarrassment than anything else. The knock-on effects were pretty severe, however. The recklessness of the action led Nikita Khurshchev and Fidel Castro to think about the advantages of secretly putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. For pushing the United States the closest the world has ever gotten to a nuclear war, this action, the gold standard or bureaucratic clusterf*cks, deserves to be here.

7) Sponsoring the 1953 coup in Iran. This is a bit unfair to early Cold War policymakers. From their vantage point, meddling in Iran bought them 25 years of a pretty stable ally in a pretty volatile region. From the vantage point of today, however, one can connect the dots to the 1979 Iranian revolution and 34 years of unremitting Iranian hostility to U.S. aims in the region. Plus, they’re like, totally going to sue us now.

6) Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’ve blogged ad nauseum about this and have no wish to repeat myself here. From a simple cost-benefit analysis, however, there is no way to justify the enormous expenditure of blood and treasure to eliminate a WMD problem that turns out to have not existed. The opportunity costs were massive.

5) Crossing the 38th parallel in Korea. After a daring counterattack, U.S. forces had repulsed the initial North Korean attacks on the South, and the question became whether to advance past the 38th parallel and attempt to liberate the entire Korean peninsula. China issued repeated warnings not to do that. On the urging of General Douglas MacArthur, the Truman administration decided to push forward — leading to another two years of bloodshed with little change in the situation on the ground.

4) Expansion of the war in Vietnam. More than 50,000 Americans dead. Millions of Vietnamese dead. An illegal invasion of Cambodia, which eventually triggered a genocide in that country. Massive domestic unrest in the United States. The end of Bretton Woods. The beginnings of stagflation. Richard Nixon. This is just a short list of what happened as a result of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the conflict in Vietnam.

3) The War on Drugs. I’ve made the case for drug legalization before, but the key thing here is that the War on Drug Supply has destabilized countries from Mexico to Colombia to Myanmar to Afghanistan — and it matters vey little whether these operations are a tactical success or not, because the demand remains.

2) Refusal to join the League of Nations. The United States was the strongest state in the international system at the end of World I. However flawed, the League of Nations was the "constitutional moment" after the war that could have led to some measure of stability. Nevertheless, a combination of nativism and the sheer obduracy of Woodrow Wilson caused the United States not to join, thereby helping to ensure that all of the flaws of the Treaty of Versailles would never be remedied.

1) 1920s Economic diplomacy. This merits its own place on the list, separate from the League decision. One can make a case that on security matters, U.S. neutrality during the interwar period had some benefits. On the economic side, however, oh, the United States screwed over everyone. Washington simultaneously demanded that its wartime allies promptly pay back the loans it took out to finance the war — and then erected historically high tariff barriers to make it next to impossible for these countries to export their way out of trouble. Oh, and the United States closed the decade with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, thereby setting the Great Depression in motion.


I suspect foreign policy devotees of every ideological flavor will find something to like in this list.  A lot of half-hearted military adventurism is up there — but there are also some cases where the United States abdicated leadership as well. 

Readers are warmly encouraged to suggest examples that I missed in the comments. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner