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The perils of presidential success

President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit a year ago in Germany. Credit: Getty Images / German Government Press Office

Success is a dangerous thing for presidents. Few have resisted the temptation to apply the approach that led to one supposed success to other problems. And most of them have gotten burned as a result. From North Korea, President Donald Trump has moved on to Russia. That’s not a good pattern.

It’s hard to have a success as president, especially in the realm of foreign policy. The world is an intractable place that we don’t understand well. There are lots of players, and few if any of them are interested in helping us, or are even honest about what they want. Failure is nearly guaranteed.

So when a president has a success, he does what everyone does: He learns from it. At last, he thinks, after sleepless nights, the world has done what he wanted it to do. He’s figured it out. Now it’s time to use the secret sauce to solve other problems that vex him. And that’s where the trouble starts.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted a cheap, covert way to dispose of anti-American regimes. In 1953, as he saw it, the United States organized a coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The administration had its solution, one that historians have condemned ever since.

Eisenhower, at least, got lucky. He’d left office by the time the Bay of Pigs proved to President John F. Kennedy that organizing coups wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.

President Bill Clinton had a different problem. He inherited a humanitarian campaign in Somalia that, after Blackhawk Down, felt like a war. His solution was simple: Bug out. That looked like a win. But when the genocide in Rwanda started, staying out of humanitarian wars felt like a moral failure.

And there was President George W. Bush. Virtually everyone in 2001 said that Afghanistan would be hard. But driving the Taliban from power proved to be easy. So easy, in fact, that we decided to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime with a light footprint, and spent years regretting it.

Part of the problem is that presidents naturally want to apply the lessons from one crisis to another, where they usually fit poorly. But another, more subtle, problem lurks. It’s hard to have a success. It’s even harder to know when the success you think you’ve had is real.

Eisenhower thought the United States had gotten rid of Mosaddegh. But research by historian and former Obama administration official Ray Takeyh suggests that the CIA’s impact was “ultimately insignificant.” Events in Iran followed their own path, not one made in Washington. Eisenhower was wrong.

Clinton, too, was wrong. What he saw as an easy way out looked to Osama bin Laden like a U.S. defeat. Somalia taught him that the United States would cut and run if we bled. On 9/11, that lesson struck home.

As for Bush, driving the Taliban out was a victory. But it was a victory in a campaign, not the war. Seventeen years later, the war continues, and today we are closer to losing than we are to winning.

With his Trumpian deal with North Korea, the president thinks he has a victory. I doubt he does — the North Koreans are serial cheaters, and evidence that they are cheating again is emerging. But it’s not what I think that matters, it’s how Trump perceives it. He took a risk no one liked. And he got a Trumpian deal. An obvious lesson for him to take away is that he can get deals no one else can. So now, on to the next strongman we all think is too risky to deal with: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Trump’s not the first president to reach out to Putin — Clinton, Bush, and Barack Obama all did it, and they all got fooled. Trump’s not the first to learn lessons from what he perceives as his success. When it comes to Putin, Trump needs to learn his lesson from his predecessors’ failures.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.