The American President

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In a post titled "A Weak President", Mark Kleiman unleashes some righteous fury . . . well, at least, righteous disapproval . . . on the Obama Administration's treatment of Bradley Manning, and meditates on whether this means it's okay to vote for Republicans:

Surely the President knows as well as anyone else that asking people accused of maltreating a prisoner whether the prisoner is being properly treated is like asking a drunk how much he's had to drink. Since Barack Obama is not a fool, this can only mean that he's reluctant to countermand Gates and Gates's subordinates. (Note that he didn't say that he'd had the allegations checked out and found that they were false.)

. . . Our actual choice next November will be between an incumbent who would more or less like to do the right thing about torture but isn't willing to cash in all his chips to do so, and who also has sane and decent views about poverty, ignorance, and environmental catastrophe, and a Republican candidate who is enthusiastic about torture and also about poverty, ignorance, and environmental capacity.

I think this gives Obama too much credit, and Bush far too little.  What evidence do we have that Obama is reluctant about all of this stuff? 

To me, a better explanation--one that explains the fact that there's not that much daylight between Bush and Obama on these issues--is that being president makes you want to do these things.  The president has access to more information than the rest of us, and as Daniel Ellsberg warned Kissinger, long ago, that changes how you think:
"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.

Not only does the president hear about threats we don't, but he's the guy who gets in trouble if any of these threats come off. The combination of heightened threat-alertness, and personal risk aversion, makes him willing to do bad things to avert the potential threat. And since the president knows that he's a good person, and the people around him are basically good people, he's willing to trust them with power that no institution should have.

Especially since they--working on many of the same assumptions--will be lobbying him hard for that power. The president is not a dictator. And even a dictator needs the support of his subordinates more than is usually appreciated.

I mean, I used to think that Janet Reno was evil--SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes? Really? Then we had a succession of new Attorneys General who all seemed to err on the side of megalomaniacal overreach. At which point I decided that it probably wasn't the person; it was the office. When you're sitting up there in that lofty perch, hearing about all the bad things that are happening in the country, and you know that you could do a lot more to fight them if you just had a little bit more power--well, sure, maybe it's not a good idea in abstract, but you're not going to abuse it, you're just trying to solve problems. Et voila, Waco.

So too, I suspect, with tormenting prisoners, and civil liberties. Maybe if Mark and I were president, we'd support this stuff too. Which is not, by the way, an argument for doing it. It's an argument that we need to serve as a check on the president. Because we're not going to fix it by just electing a better person to be president. Whoever we elect will still be president, with all that implies.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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