The first laser-guided bombs operated on what was known as a “bang bang” guidance system. After the bomb’s sensor detected a laser designator’s reflection off a target, its fins would all flip in one direction, and then all in another. After zigging and zagging back and forth, the bomb would, in theory, hit the illuminated point. Yet as the Wikipedia entry notes, “This type of guidance may be less efficient at times.”
The thesis of Maximalist is that American foreign policy works on bang bang guidance. In Stephen Sestanovich’s recounting of the big foreign policy decisions from 1947 to the present, American presidents have either been “maximalists,” seeking to exert American power and influence on an unruly and turbulent world, or “retrenchers,” seeking to pull back and build policies for the long haul. In the former camp are Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush; in the latter are Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, and George H. W. Bush occupy the uneasy middle, which is not unrelated (in the author’s view) to their inability to gain two full terms in office.
Sestanovich tells the story of the big choices—the Marshall Plan, Korea, Vietnam, the Reagan revival, and Iraq prominent among them—with verve. This is not, and does not avow itself to be, a work of archival research, although Sestanovich draws heavily on the magnificent Foreign Relations of the United States, the massive compilation of documents pertaining to the making of foreign policy that is probably the best official historical work done by the United States government. But he tells the tales with the sensitivity and insight of one who has seen government up close, in both the Reagan and Clinton administrations. He does not mention his own experiences, but they clearly shape his feeling for the chaos of policy-making and his empathy with those who engage in it.
If the author has a case to make, he also has one to tear down—namely, the idea of a harmonious foreign policy consensus in the heyday of the Cold War, in which clear-sighted statesmen all agreed on a path. Not so. George Kennan thought it possible to cut a deal with Moscow that would leave Germany and Japan, among other countries, “uncommitted as between the two worlds,” and went so far as to think that American withdrawal from Europe would “stimulate a disposition on the Soviet side to do likewise.” John Foster Dulles inadvertently triggered the Suez crisis through his relentless advocacy of a scheme for the United States to finance the Aswan High Dam for Egypt’s dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser. John F. Kennedy threw away his victory in the Cuban missile crisis by promising to withdraw American missiles from Turkey and then running a cover-up to prevent word from leaking out. And far from having conducted the crisis to avoid force, Kennedy’s advisers, including his brother Robert, saw the blockade as merely a prelude to a military attack.
Indeed, one of the more interesting features of Sestanovich’s potted histories is the poor light that they shed on most presidential advisers. For example, Lyndon Johnson comes off as much wiser than his assistants in his apprehensions about the direction the Vietnam war was going, although Sestanovich notes that his domestic agenda—in particular, his fear and loathing of Robert Kennedy, a potential presidential challenger in 1968—drove an unseemly amount of his Indo-china policy. But nothing compares to the savaging that Henry Kissinger receives at Sestanovich’s hands: It is a tale of bullying weak allies, toadying to the Chinese, claiming credit for Nixon’s ideas, and sneering at beleaguered human rights figures such as Andrei Sakharov.
Yet presidents and advisers alike founder sooner or later, going too far either in reaching for the stars or in pulling back: “Just like the maximalists they scorn, [retrenchment presidents] overdo it,” Sestanovich writes. That is a judgment he passes on the current administration as well, albeit in modulated tones.