On North Korea and Iran, Hubris Continues to Haunt American Security Policy

On North Korea and Iran, Hubris Continues to Haunt American Security Policy
President Donald Trump and John Bolton, the national security adviser, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Washington, April 9, 2018 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

Recent American history is full of mistakes in security policy, and yet for some reason, policymakers in Washington are chronically bad at learning from them. Too often, the United States is burned by a deeply flawed policy in some part of the world and resists repeating it for a few years, only to later try the same thing somewhere else. This propensity to forget strategic lessons may be infecting the Trump administration today.

Take the belief that second-tier adversaries can be cowed into submission by economic sanctions and the threat or actual use of U.S. military power, even when they see their vital interests or regime survival at stake. Despite the fact that this strategy didn’t succeed against North Vietnam or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, policy experts and political leaders keep reviving it. One reason is the natural propensity to remember successes and forget failures.

The “sanction and threaten” approach did, in fact, work once, in 1999, against Slobodan Milosevic in what was then Yugoslavia, now Serbia. What is easy to forget is that this was possible because of Milosevic’s economic and political vulnerability at home, the fact that the world was stable enough that the U.S. military could concentrate on bombing Belgrade, and that Russia’s own weakness left Milosevic with no friends to blunt the effect of pressure from the United States and its European allies. Put differently, the strategy worked because it was applied during an anomalous “unipolar” moment in the global security system.

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