Every president faces national security crises. They come in many forms: attacks on the homeland, foreign wars, global economic crises, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and many others. Yet when such crises occur in the first months of a new administration – and they will – the presidential team is often unprepared to handle them.
On Thursday, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center will release seven detailed essays focused on the national security challenges that the next president will face. The essays are authored by prominent historians and veterans of recent presidential administrations, including Philip Zelikow, State Department Counselor in the George W. Bush administration and Michèle Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in President Barack Obama’s administration.
The new essays are part of the Miller Center’s First Year Project, which will release a series of essays every two months until mid-2018, each addressing key issues likely to arise during the new president’s first term. They will be shared directly with presidential candidates and their staffs and will be available publicly on the project’s website – www.firstyear2017.org.
The essays shed light on the types of foreign policy problems that past presidents have encountered in their first year and offer crucial insights and advice on how to prepare for such crises and avoid typical pitfalls. The new chief executive may lack experience in the job. The crises may pose unfamiliar and complex new problems. Or, they may simply be unwelcome distractions from other priorities on the new president’s domestic policy agenda. For all of these reasons, foreign policy crises occurring during a president’s first year in office are an especially difficult test to navigate. John Kennedy thought his first year was a disaster, and the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs that occurred shortly after he took office provides a classic case of a first-year mistake. However, as these essays show, JFK was not alone. Most presidents have found themselves in similar circumstances and there is much to be learned from their reactions.
History indicates that new presidents tend to rely on staff from the election campaign or other party loyalists for foreign policy advice and fail to surround themselves with the best and most experienced experts. They also tend to consider ongoing policies of the previous administration as flawed, rather than evaluating them on their merits. They tend to assume that political victory at the ballot box will translate into political capital overseas and adopt a robust and confrontational tone in world affairs that proves counterproductive. They often fail to see that foreign policy crises will shape their presidency and prefer to concentrate on domestic initiatives that seem more pressing to their constituents.
Circumstances already suggest extraordinary difficulty in 2017, when President Obama’s successor takes office. The next president will face major threats to national security in his or her first 12 months in office. That is a virtual certainty. But will he or she be prepared? The First Year Project provides a starting point.