Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Government vs The President

I ran into a somewhat interesting piece on the Trump/CIA strife the other day, from an author I don't normally read, Glenn Greenwald:

IN JANUARY, 1961, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address after serving two terms as U.S. president; the five-star general chose to warn Americans of this specific threat to democracy: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” That warning was issued prior to the decadelong escalation of the Vietnam War, three more decades of Cold War mania, and the post-9/11 era, all of which radically expanded that unelected faction’s power even further.

This is the faction that is now engaged in open warfare against the duly elected and already widely disliked president-elect, Donald Trump. They are using classic Cold War dirty tactics and the defining ingredients of what has until recently been denounced as “Fake News.”

Their most valuable instrument is the U.S. media, much of which reflexively reveres, serves, believes, and sides with hidden intelligence officials. And Democrats, still reeling from their unexpected and traumatic election loss as well as a systemic collapse of their party, seemingly divorced further and further from reason with each passing day, are willing — eager — to embrace any claim, cheer any tactic, align with any villain, regardless of how unsupported, tawdry and damaging those behaviors might be.

There's a fair amount in this piece that I don't agree with. I'm far more in line with the foreign policy establishment take on Russia, the Middle East, etc. than Greenwald is, but nonetheless I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about the dynamic he points out here, precisely because I'm inclined to prefer the polices of some of the non-elected experts who are at odds with the incoming president.

The background here, the storm of the moment, for those not following the daily news cycle, is that during the election a person with a background in intelligence, who was working first for anti-Trump candidates in the GOP primary and later for Hillary, assembled a "dossier" of anonymously sourced accusations about supposed Trump perfidies which allegedly put him under the power of Putin and showed him up as a bad person generally. This dossier was known to the Hillary campaign and was sent to various news outlets, but no one published its claims because no one could verify its claims. However, as part of the escalating strife between the incoming administration, people at the CIA successfully made the dossier news by first briefing both Obama and Trump as to the contents of the dossier, and then leaking to the press the "news" that the two had been briefed on it. Although the claims remain unverified, the fact of the briefing itself was considered news, and so the whole tawdry list of claims was finally published and discussed in various news outlets, starting with Buzzfeed.

Various people have sagely nodded that "this is why a president should never pick a fight with an intelligence agency". It's true that a president should not pick a fight with one of his intelligence agencies (or any other essential part of the government -- house divided against itself and all that) but if one means that statement in the sense of "if a president doesn't get along with the consensus in the CIA, the CIA will use it's perceived authority to try to destroy him" that actually represents a rather problematic situation in a democracy.

I'm not much of a populist. I think that experts are very often just that, experts in their fields. Yes, they can have agendas which sometimes blind them to the facts (see the school of Sovietologists who thought that the USSR was healthy and likely to be around for decades to come -- right up to the point where it collapsed.) But while not every opinion advanced by an expert will be good, on topics which require a lot of detailed knowledge about, say, what foreign governments are up to, you need a fair amount of expertise before forming an opinion is even worthwhile. So, for instance, it may well be that the experts at the CIA have bad ideas as to what to do about the civil war in Syria, but at least knowing what groups are engaged on which sides and why (as they experts do) is a prerequisite to having an opinion worth listening to on the topic.

I'm sympathetic to the plight of people who have spent their entire careers understanding complicated problems so they can advise the president, who know find themselves faced with someone in that office who likes to brag that he already knows more about such topics than the experts, despite the fact he's known to source his knowledge from places like the National Enquirer. And spending my life in offices, which have their own sort of internal politics, I also understand the reasons why people will say things like "Don't diss the admins. You can't succeed without having them on your side."

And yet, foolish though the recently elected president may be, the precedent of having unelected officials within the government try to destroy or route around a chief executive they don't like is terrible. No matter how incompetent or misguided our president may be, it's deeply worrying to move towards a system in which the government's powerful bureaucracies take on and try to get rid of elected officials they don't like. We as voters have no way to either replace those bureaucracies nor to redirect them. Our system of government relies upon them following the orders of the executive and the legislature. If they begin to see themselves as above that, we risk a tyranny of 'the experts' which would probably do none of us (in the long term, not even the experts) any good.


Unknown said...

I'd say there are two major flaws in the argument you're making (as I see it, etc):

1. You're excluding the middle so that the options are: "Bureaucracies fall in line with the president" or "Bureaucracies try to get rid of / ignore the president." In reality, an incoming president would normally take a middle course, not openly criticizing the current bureaucracies but quietly planning how to work with the existing structure to accomplish their goals. Trump is thinking of this like a business he's done a hostile take over of, that he can now clean house in. His anger seems to come from the shock that anyone in what is now 'his property' would try to criticize him.

2. I think what we're seeing in this part of the debacle is a direct result of Trump's actions and attitudes. When you decide to run things in a 'winner take all' mentality, which is fairly unprecedented, you make people feel like they have nothing left to lose, so they might as well hurt you / let their true feelings show. Governance is supposed to be about figuring out how to make the most people the least unhappy, and you do that by saying 'even if you didn't win, I respect your ideas.' Whatever else you might say, respect isn't on the table with Trump, or even in the same building.

But, I'm deeply partisan and also think career politicians should run the country, otherwise why do they exist? So I'm out of the zeitgeist.

Darwin said...

We may not be as far apart as you think. I'm also deeply partisan and think that career politicians should run the country. And I would agree that Trump's intentional antagonization of the career government professionals that he's supposed to lead is going to naturally cause problems. My personal sympathies are pretty much entirely with the unelected officials here.

However, because they're unelected -- and even though they are far more knowledgeable about their fields than this incoming executive in particular -- I think there's a certain civic requirement that they not try to actually oust him or run policy contrary to his direct orders. Trying to guide him or slow down his crazy ideas seems fine, trying to run the government in a way that defies the executive seems like it sets a dangerous precedent. I probably wouldn't mind it so much in this case, but I think that the country is already in some danger of a sort of oligarchy of the experts (to which both the Trump and Sanders campaigns were to an extent a reaction) and I'm hesitant to see the trend pushed further.

This makes the government different than a private company, where I have a lot less of an issue with the employees actively working to oust a chief executive in which they have no confidence.

TheOFloinn said...

'winner take all' mentality, which is fairly unprecedented

Really? Have we forgotten the previous administration? Or for that matter Jefferson, Jackson, and others?