Your Vote didn’t Matter.
If you truly had a democracy and did what the people wanted, you’d go wrong every time.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson
I learned of this quote from Tufts Professor of International Law Michael J. Glennon’s new book National Security and Double Government, which I haven’t actually read. I cheated and read his essay version here. I started off thinking that concern with politics and voting was a waste of time, but Glennon has helped cement these views.
I remember when I was a kid thinking sports mattered. I was insistent in middle school that Denver sucked. I had never been to Denver, but I knew this. It turned out though that sports teams are not representative proxies for the cities in which they play. The only reason they are associated with cities at all are economic convenience. Players who enter a league are drafted into cities with which they have no former affiliation. And they leave when they get a better offer to play somewhere else.
Once I realized this, I stupidly thought I was smart for having seen it—for having realized that opposing players have far more in common with each other than with their fans. I took such pride in seeing through that illusion that I failed to look for others.
The Obama Administration, like its predecessor, has sent terrorism suspects overseas for detention and interrogation; claimed the power to hold, without trial, American citizens who are accused of terrorism in military confinement; insisted that it is for the President to decide whether an accused terrorist will be tried by a civilian court or a military tribunal kept the military prison at Guantánamo Bay open, argued that detainees cannot challenge the conditions of their confinement, and restricted detainees’ access to legal counsel; resisted efforts to extend the right of habeas corpus to other off- shore prisons; argued that detainees cannot invoke the Geneva Conventions in habeas proceedings; denied detainees access to the International Committee of the Red Cross for weeks at a time; engaged the United States in a military attack against Libya without congressional approval, in the face of no actual or imminent threat to the nation; and continued, and in some respects expanded, the Bush Administration’s ballistic missile defense program. [citations removed in all quotes]
Glennon goes on. He takes his time as Obama’s failings are numerous.
My working hypothesis had been that Obama was a lying bastard when trying to get elected and didn’t actually care about civil liberties, or even limiting foreign
wars military actions. It now occurs to me that maybe he does care about these things but just finds himself unable to change government policy.
When Obama considered lowering the military’s proposed force levels for Afghanistan, a member of his National Security Council staff who was an Iraq combat veteran suggested that, if the President did so, the Commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (“ISAF”) in Afghanistan (General Stanley McChrystal), the Commander of U.S. Central Command (General David Petraeus), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral Michael Mullen), and even Secretary of Defense Gates all might resign.
I think it’s helpful to make a visual of this little story. You have just been elected President of the United States. You did so by opposing a war you felt was misguided. You won your primary race by opposing it more forcefully than your main opponent. You settle into that office, rap your ring twice on the exceptional desk gifted by the Queen of England in 1880.
Then a staff member of your National Security Council tells you to hand over your balls because you won’t be needing them during your stay.
Once this dynamic is set up to nudge one decision, it becomes the background context for every subsequent “decision” you make. The implicit threat of abandonment accompanies every demand disguised as a request. When you tell the Defense Department to close Guantanamo Bay as you promised the American people repeatedly that you would do, your appointees who owe you their jobs will explain back to you why they won’t actually be following your orders, presidential or not.
This isn’t to say nothing changes; Glennon admits as much. Obama banned water boarding. Glennon’s thesis isn’t that Obama has nothing to do with policy. Rather, it is that policy is the result of a one-sided negotiation between Obama and the bureaucracy. And the results of the negotiation seem to rather resemble the results of a negotiation between a 4-year-old and his mother on a trip to the grocery store. Yes, the kid will get something, but it will only be after the real business is done, and it will only be something that is terribly unimportant.
Glennon claims these “wins” are allowed to elected officials because they offer cover for the power of the Trumanites (Glennon’s term for the efficient, unelected careerists like Robert Gates who largely dictate policy). That the president sometimes wins on some inconsequential point is public proof that democracy has meaning just like an NFL player visiting a local school is evidence that he really cares about the television market he plays for.
Richard Holbrooke, the President’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, predicted that the military would offer the usual three options— the option they wanted, bracketed by two unreasonable alternatives that could garner no support.
Glennon cites Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars for an example of this:
Obama was almost fretting. “A six-to-eight-year war at $50 billion a year is not in the national interest of the United States.” That was what was before him. The entire timeline from deployment to draw-down was too much. “Actually,” he continued, “in 18 to 24 months we need to think about how we can begin thinning out our presence and reducing our troops. This cannot be an open-ended commitment.”
The president took another look at Mullen’s four options.
“So let me get this straight, okay?” Obama asked. “You guys just presented me four options, two of which are not realistic”… Of the remaining two—the 40,000 and Gates’s 30,000 to 35,000—he noted their numbers were about the same. “That’s not good enough.” And the way the chart presented it, the 30,000 to 35,000 option was really another way to get to the full 40,000 because there would be a decision point for the fourth brigade in a year, December 2010. So 2A is just 2 without the final brigade? he asked.
“Yes,” said McChrystal.
Two and 2A are really the same, Obama said. “So what’s my option? You have essentially given me one option.” He added sternly, “You’re not really giving me any options. We were going to meet here today to talk about three options. I asked for three options at the Joint Chiefs meeting.” That was some 10 days earlier. “You agreed to go back and work those up.”
The president repeated that he wanted the graph moved to the left. Get the forces in faster and out faster. “You tell me that the biggest problem we have now is that momentum is with the Taliban, and the reason for this resource request is that the momentum is with the Taliban. But you’re not getting these troops into Afghanistan” for more than a year. “I’m not going to make a commitment that leaves my successor with more troops than I inherited in Afghanistan.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. He wanted another option.
“Well,” Gates finally said, “Mr. President, I think we owe you that option.”
It never came.
Glennon says that despite their importance such negotiations are kept private to maintain the appearance of harmony and that elected officials are in control of policy rather than the Trumanites.
harmony prevails between the Trumanite network and Madisonian [VB:the Presidency, Congress, and the Judiciary] institutions. This is not because the Trumanites click their heels and salute the Madisonians. Trumanites believe that the Madisonian institutions, in Bagehot’s phrase, “tend to diminish simple efficiency.” They know that needless bellicosity toward other nations often originates on Capitol Hill. They can tick off multiple military (mis)adventures pushed by “the civilians” that Pentagon planners prudently opposed. They know from history how Joe McCarthy and his merry band savaged the State Department, petrified sensible policymakers, and made the CIA a veritable political safehouse for enlightened “China hands.” They know how, before the Trumanite network arrived on the scene, Madisonian institutions bungled American membership in the League of Nations and toyed dangerously with indifference and isolationism while Hitler’s shadow lengthened. To the Trumanites, “[t]he nation [has] outgrown its institutions, and [is] cramped by them.” With Acheson, they regard the Madisonian institutions as lacking the requisite expertise, experience, and seriousness of purpose needed to safeguard the nation’s security. Rather, the Trumanites are not seen publicly to resist the policies set by the Madisonians because the Madisonian institutions must always be perceived as the authors of the Trumanites’ projects. For the Trumanite network to be identified as the authors of initiatives such as warrantless NSA surveillance, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, or the Bay of Pigs invasion would risk delegitimizing the Madisonian institutions—and thus undermining the ultimate power source on which the Trumanites themselves must rely, electoral assent. Ostensible harmony is therefore imperative.
Wait a minute. I agree with the Trumanites that “the Madisonian institutions as lacking the requisite expertise, experience, and seriousness of purpose needed to safeguard the nation’s security.” In fact, it seems downright obvious that congressmen, judges, and presidents are hopelessly inexpert in many matters that come before them. Yes, they have staffs, but there’s only so much a bunch of Yale political science majors can learn about any given topic. If you want a genuine expert on, say, solar energy, there are none within the constitutionally mandatory institutions. All of them are sitting somewhere like the Department of Energy, and they are doing their work without needing any specific order from the president to do so. The president is probably hopelessly unqualified to direct such work, or even to select someone to direct such work.
Also cited is Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture: The war on terror and the soul of the Obama presidency,
describing how the Obama Administration’s initial decision to continue using the Bush Administration’s legal arguments with regard to the state secrets doctrine was made by the Justice Department and that “Obama only learned about it after the fact, from the front page of the New York Times”
When I first heard about this use of the state secrets doctrine, I thought “how awful and hypocritical of Obama to criticize such methods when applied by Republicans and turn around and use the same methods once he assumed power!” That indignation nicely fit with the “power corrupts” chestnut. Also, secrets seem much more important to keep when you are among those privy to them. It’s those on the outside who want them divulged, but once an outsider becomes an insider their incentives change.
It turned out I was wrong. Obama was simply ignorant of what the Justice Department was doing. There were probably a thousand things the Justice Department did that particular day, and that was probably just one decision made by one mid-to-low-tier bureaucrat who didn’t think much of it at the time. He probably would have thought it’d have been weird to ask that the president be consulted. Imagine the headaches if the DEA had to consult with the president every single time they wanted to give away guns to drug cartels. No one would get anything done.
This is the system we’ve built, with presidents who read about what their governments are up to in the Times. That’s how we went from electing a candidate who promised us to get us out of Iraq and mocked his predecessor for citing the dangers of Al-Qaeda-like groups to a president leading us into a preemptive war in Iraq and parts of other countries against a group he describes as worse than Al Qaeda (other than their not having had anything to do with 9/11).
This echoes the ending of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the pigs and humans begin to look so alike that one cannot tell them apart. Except Orwell’s pigs at least had agency. The pigs made choices that were awful, but they were their choices.
In Glennon’s National Security and Double Government, the interchangeability of the leaders doesn’t come from their awfulness. Rather, it’s their ineffectuality. They are PR for real power.
Children are taught from an early age to revere the balance of the Congress, the Presidency, and the Judiciary, but learn nothing of the National Security Council. The Trumanites regard the public and thereby the Madisonian institutions they elect as too fickle, uneducated, and undeserving to be given more than a modicum of control over policy. If we really did enter and exit wars based on the decisions of elected leaders, US policy would be as schizophrenic as our elections. Would that be preferable to being ruled by an unelected bureaucracy? Glennon doesn’t provide an answer.
The game of elections is a distraction. Voting ascribes the Madisonian government with legitimacy that the National Security Council cannot claim for itself. In return, it asks for control over every substantive policy decision.