The Second Term Foreign Policy Curse; Cultures of War and Obama’s War of Choice Against Syria

            For the past century, almost every second term of an American president has been dominated by a foreign policy disaster.

            Woodrow Wilson, after winning re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” promptly took the United States in in April, 1917.

            Only the three terms of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover escaped the foreign policy curse, but ended in the economic collapse of the Great Depression.

            Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected in 1936, faced the outbreak of civil war in Spain and the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, culminating in the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939.

            Harry Truman had the Korean War in the fifth year of his reign.  Eisenhower’s only foreign deployment of troops, the Marines in Lebanon, came in 1958, the sixth year of his two terms.

            Vietnam heated up at the beginning of the second term of the Kennedy-Johnson interregnum, while the sixth year of that Democratic administration saw the outbreak of the Six Day War, the consequences of which are still with us.  Nixon resigned in the sixth year of his two terms.  Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal in the sixth year of his two terms. 

            Bush I had his foreign policy disaster, the war with Iraq, in his first term, so he never even got a second term.  Clinton, like Eisenhower, had a minor foreign policy skirmish, Kosovo, in the middle of his second term.  And by the second of Bush II’s terms, the invasion of Iraq was turning into a Vietnam style quagmire.

            Now it looks like Obama is going to have a foreign policy disaster of his own.  For years I have been seeking an explanation for this pattern, without success.  Now, I may have found it.


            John W. Dower, a now retired professor of Japanese History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written a powerful, important, brilliant book called Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11, Iraq.  The basic premise of this book is that the decision-making process that led the Japanese into the tactically brilliant but strategically stupid attack on Peal Harbor was identical to the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq which succeeded brilliantly in the beginning before degenerating into a disaster.

            There is a lot of great scholarship in this book.  It should be required reading for anyone who deals with foreign or military policy in any capacity.  Dower contends that one purpose of all organizations is to reward agreement and cooperation while punishing and ostracizing dissent.  This can easily lead to groupthink, with disastrous consequences.

            Once an American president wins re-election, a pall of infallibility seems to descend on the administration and disasters tend to follow in short order.  Because domestic policy is shared with the Congress, it is only in foreign policy where the power of the president is relatively unfettered that the mistakes appear most readily.  The re-election itself seems to strengthen the yea-sayers and repudiate the nay-sayers, so the mistakes flow thick and fast.


            Now, President Obama is poised to attack Syria to punish it for its use of chemical weapons against its own people.  This is not the first time Syria has used such weapons, with no notable response from either the United States or the world community.  Also, this sudden outrage at the Syrians is in marked contrast to the benign response the previous month to the Egyptian Military Junta’s gunning down hundreds of people who turned out to demonstrate for the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi, the first popularly elected president in Egypt’s history.  In the latter case, the killings are called “restoring democracy.”

            More significantly, Dower makes the case for American hypocrisy.  Without in any way condoning the Syrian use of chemical weapons, the United States still remains the only nation in the world ever to use nuclear arms on hundreds of thousands of civilians; the consequences of which endure to this day.  The United States also dropped 8 million tons of bombs on an enemy that had no real air force, plus another 8 million tons of artillery shells; not to mention mines. Five percent of these bombs and shells were duds, meaning they are still around waiting to be triggered accidentally.  Over 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or wounded by these explosives in the forty years since the end of the war.

            And finally, there is the United States’s own use of chemical weapons: 88 million liters of Agent Orange, a dioxin laced compound that lasts for centuries, gets into the food chain causing cancer and birth defects, not just for the Vietnamese, but for the American soldiers and their offspring.

            So yes, the United States should do whatever it can to prevent Syria, or any other nation, including itself, from using chemical and nuclear weapons; but that does not give it the right to use other weapons which will inevitably kill more innocent civilians to, as the saying goes, send a message.

            One of Dower’s more cogent points is that people who speak in terms of good and evil are usually in denial of their own contribution to the conflict at hand.  Almost all military deployments by the United States in the Middle East in the past half century have been basically to enable Israel to keep the land and water it has taken from the Arabs by force in violation of international law.

            Until Israel settles with the Palestinians, the cycle of violence in the Middle East will just continue, with potentially devastating global economic consequences, if not environmental ones also.  Anyway, Dower’s book is important to read, if only because Israel and the Middle East conflict is almost completely absent from the book, yet the lessons it cites certainly apply there as well.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf