Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why Presidents Do What They Do

A very interesting post from Megan McArdle on why Presidents change once they're in office. The most interesting part is a quote from Daniel Ellsberg to a young Kissenger. It's long but well worth reading:

"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all -- so much! incredible! -- suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.

"Over a longer period of time -- not too long, but a matter of two or three years -- you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

"In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

"You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

....Kissinger hadn't interrupted this long warning. As I've said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn't take it as patronizing, as I'd feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn't have the clearances yet.
She goes on to say that it's up to people on the outside to keep them on the path of the straight and true, regardless of what their special knowledge tells them to do. Which I think is true but is also much easier to say than to actually accomplish.
Heinlein said that the touchstone of a fair deal is whether it still looks good if you turn it around. I use this process all the time when evaluating executive power. You simply look at action X and ask yourself how you'd feel if an immoral President from the other side had it. (I use Clinton, I'm sure a host of others would use W Bush.)

I've long thought that W Bush made a huge mistake in the early days after Sept 11, once it was clear that we were going into Afghanistan. There was quickly the problem of what we should do with people that were picked up from the battlefield and what we should do with them. How do we figure out if they need extra scrutiny and what should we do with them if they were a future danger?
At that point Bush should have called for a bipartisan panel to set out rules for future detainees. He should have gone out of his way to include Presidential aspirants from both sides, most obviously McCain and Hilary Clinton. And then, once a system was hammered out, he should have rigorously stuck to it.
There are big questions that we face when trying to deal with a guerrilla opponent. Our Constitution is better designed to deal with the relative openness of regular citizens and the loud debates over the last ten years are a testament to how thorny all of this is. Our best approach (and Obama could still go this route) would be to try and create some bipartisan, all agreed upon process. Otherwise we'll simply be locked into this damnable area where the political games get in the way of actual security questions.

As an aside, and while I'm on this topic, there is a question that I've never heard a good answer for. Libs and Dems yelled for years about how awful the Guantanamo route was. Why did Obama take office over two years ago without a clear alternative? Shouldn't some of the yellers have figured out a better plan by now?