Do Presidents become more interventionist once they take office?

by on June 19, 2013 at 7:40 am in History, Political Science | Permalink

Andrew Sullivan is upset with President Obama over Syria.  I’d like to consider the background question of whether individuals, upon assuming the presidency, subsequently come to look more kindly on foreign intervention (and perhaps also surveillance?) than before holding office.  I can think of a few reasons why this might occur:

1. Presidents become used to holding power, and this makes them more statist, including more interventionist.  It’s not that they wake up one morning as evil, but rather they must make many small compromises along the way, and since they are committed to holding good images of themselves, their moral views shift subtly over time to accommodate this positive self-image.  Many libertarians favor this kind of explanation.

2. Presidents learn the actual truth about the international situation, and becoming more interventionist is a rational implication of Bayesian updating.  Many Presidents favor this kind of of explanation.

3. Presidents must live with a great sense of responsibility for their decisions, and this makes them more utilitarian and less deontological.  Arguably the same is true of CEOs of major companies, and of the major characters in the new Superman movie.  Superman seems willing to toss around infrastructure to increase his chance of taking out some bad guys, and none of the viewers in the Angelika Mosaic multiplex seemed to find this implausible or undesirable.

4. Presidents come to rely on the national security and defense establishment as an important part of their coalition, and this establishment is, for reasons of its own, often favorably predisposed to intervention, at least if done according to their self-imposed standards.  There is a bit of trade going on here and also a bit of cognitive capture, but in any case presidents move closer to the views of their national security establishments over time.

5. Presidents, upon assuming office, become increasingly aware of what it takes to maintain America’s network of global alliances.  For instance behind any Syria decision are a variety of pressures from the Gulf States, from Israel, from the Europeans, from ongoing push-and-shove with Russia, and so on.  The President has a stronger sense of how inaction can lead to an unraveling of America’s credibility and previous agreements, both explicit and implicit.  We are never playing from t = 0.

6. Presidents come to favor actions which correspond to them receiving a stronger place in history.  In their second terms this is especially likely to involve foreign affairs.

Perhaps there is something to all of these hypotheses.  Is there a way to describe them all under a common heading of what loses salience to an individual, once he or she becomes President of the United States? It doesn’t seem quite right to postulate “they forget about the little people.”  So what is it then?

The follow-up question whether these are on the whole destructive biases, or are they useful counters to other, less cosmopolitan biases which otherwise favor too little intervention?

I sometimes wonder how much Presidents trust their own judgments.

Lord Acton June 19, 2013 at 7:44 am

Power corrupts.

Horhe June 19, 2013 at 5:32 pm

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.

Cookie for whoever gets the reference

– “Within limits you will learn and appreciate. For now, I warn you the ….. work under a system of organized distrust. Have they taught you about democracy?”
– “Yes, sir. That’s where you vote for –”
– “That’s where you distrust anyone with power over you!”

Todd June 19, 2013 at 7:49 am

#5 seems to get the closest to what I imagine to be the real explanation. Presidents sit at the head of large series of networks that will, several times in his or her Presidency, push pretty hard for some sort of military action/intervention.

A President must sometimes be an active agent to stop intervention from happening (both in fighting off pressure from other domestic and international networks and in using political capital to explain/justify the lack of action), rather than merely being a candidate/citizen opposed to intervention in general or in particular.

Phill June 19, 2013 at 11:30 am

I would add in the fact that no longer being subject to election pressures gives you a freer hand, allied to increased 1) and 3) – i.e. you’re freer to wonder about your legacy in your last mandate.

Rahul June 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Empirically, do we have a counterexample? i.e. A president who became less interventionist post-election? Political history buffs might know!

Finch June 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Reagan?

Reagan campaigned arguing for a stronger military, and he subsequently built one, but he didn’t really do much with it other than wave it around. There were people who thought Reagan wanted a confrontation with the Soviets during his campaign, not least some of the Soviets.

The Original D June 19, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Grenada?

Finch June 20, 2013 at 9:15 am

Grenada barely counts by any reasonable standard.

Besides the question was about being less interventionist than advertised. Not having had tank battles in Germany and carrier battles in the North Atlantic might qualify him.

Rahul June 19, 2013 at 8:13 am

“The follow-up question whether these are on the whole destructive biases, or are they useful counters to other, less cosmopolitan biases which otherwise favor too little intervention?”

To me this seems the most relevant question. Is intervention always bad? When does one support intervention?

Even in situations where American interests are unaffected can intervention be justified (e.g. genocides)?

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 8:26 am

The can be justified, but only if absolutely necessary.

Steven Kopits June 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

You mean, Andrew, “if the perceived benefits outweigh the costs.”

Intervention can be measured on an absolute scale by armchair quarterbacks. Decision-makers don’t have that luxury. Obama literally has the power of life and death over many people, including US soldiers and various formal and informal enemy combatants, and he has made those choices and lived with them, both good and bad.

What Obama the President knows is that he can have people killed–he has and does, routinely–and be completely unaccountable. And he can send Americans to their death and have unlimited responsibility. And he does that all the time, too.

That’s I think a big difference between an office holder and a candidate. For the candidate, these sorts of calls are all but inconceivable. For the President, they’re part of the job description.

That’s my take on Tyler’s post.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 10:37 am

No. I mean if the president gets caught red-handed and can no longer stall, deny or lie his way out of it and enough of us are pissed, he might produce a semi-plausible justification. Or not.

Phill June 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

The problem of evil is, as of yet, an open question. “Absolutely necessary” is tricky.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 8:14 am

Promises aren’t about keeping promises

Ted Craig June 19, 2013 at 8:19 am

If you’re cynical, there’s the “Wag the Dog” theory, in which presidents seek military conflicts to distract from the scandals that seem to inevitably accumulate during an administration. I’ve never been a big believer in that concept, but it was very popular in the ’90s.

Benedict June 19, 2013 at 8:23 am

#4 + pressure from non-defence players is the explanation in this case.

It’s doubtful, too, that Obama thinks Iran ‘worse’ than the evil and corrupt Saudis, but for structural reasons there is only one line an American president can take.

Al Nusra presumably despise Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is why (amongst a billion other reasons) anyone hoping for a peaceful, or even not too volatile, reunification should think a little harder about what intervention will achieve. Let’s not even consider the Kurdish commanders fighting on the Turkish-funded side.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 8:28 am

Luckily, small arms don’t help in revolutions.

Andrew June 19, 2013 at 8:38 am

While I’m obviously being facetious, your #3 is a serious critique of the Superman movie. I’d say a corollary is that Presidents may not see themselves as a component of history and slippery slopes. Right or wrong (wrong) they view an action as just that action.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 8:42 am

For Superman, the movie, not Obama, they completely missed the payoff between Pa Kent’s (questionable) cautiousness and Superman’s utilitarian calculus. Not only is it not superman-like, it detracts from the entire theme of the first half of the movie (and all the trailers) without an explanation or believable transition…on second thought, maybe I am talking about Obama.

James H June 19, 2013 at 8:35 am

Another pressure, which probably doesn’t arise to the level of your numbered items, is inaction aversion. There’s a wide spectrum between inaction and declaring war and modern presidents have plenty of latitude between the extremes. Presidents have to weigh all possibilities of action, and some combination of them seem to provide greater value than inaction. Increasing the probabilities of some kind of action is the chance that some military conflict becomes a catastrophic problem. It was probably easier to make this argument in the Cold War, but I don’t see this calculus going away when given a privileged look at international relations.
Besides, what is the proportion of military engagements that presidents have been proud of to those that they’re ashamed of?

Marie June 19, 2013 at 8:37 am

I think one factor is that the longer a president is on the national stage, the more he talks.

When you talk, you tend to say what you are going to do rather than what you aren’t. So you wind up saying things like, “I’ll intervene if Syria is proven to have used chemical weapons”, and then it’s in print and you are sometimes held to it.

There’s often a positive feedback, also, in the early stages of intervention. You feel good when the heroic rebels take the city with your help. You feel good when you win the war. The feeling bad part comes in the bulky middle (or if you fail in the beginning or the end, but America is so overwhelming that this doesn’t happen, straight out). Like drug use or gambling, if you get a boost from that first victory (in either public opinion or internally as an individual) you keep looking for that next high, and the worse it gets the more you want just one more win before you leave the table.

For the current administration, and maybe for many others, it seems clear that means are almost always about ends. It seems clear this group is not anti-interventionist in any ideological way at all. They will intervene if it furthers their world view in the real world; they will not intervene if that furthers their world view. The calculation in each case is about that. It’s not about national interests but about the interests of the subgroup of American plutocrats.

Richard T. June 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I agree with the “talk too much” thesis, and combine it with TC’s point 3: the Prez feels responsible. I think this pushes him (or her) to talk too much — can you imagine Obama saying, two years ago today, “I don’t really care if Assad keeps on killing his own people in large numbers” and getting away with it? So once he admits that he does care, people (perhaps his own, perhaps not) ask him, “So what would it take before you’ll DO SOMETHING?”, and he isn’t experienced enough to dodge the question, but no matter who asked it, his own people hear the answer and hold him to it.

dearieme June 19, 2013 at 8:42 am

You have the combination of a President who has always been keen to hide some of the circumstances of his life, and security services which probably know exactly what he’s hiding. Why, I wonder, would he be likely to give them anything they ask for? It may not be only the US security services that Know It All.

mw June 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

Wait a sec you don’t think…Could this all be to protect the identity of his Kenyan birthmother?

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 10:09 am

I tend to believe the flip side of the coin. We got a guy who never did anything and still hasn’t done anything.

mw June 19, 2013 at 10:53 am

haha. Yes because you disagree with the biggest social welfare legislation since Medicare, that legislation therefore counts as “nothing.” This is the same principle of thinginess that leads me to conclude the Iraq war and Bush tax cuts I & II were also “nothing.”

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 11:41 am

Yes, a big screw up qualifies as a nothing.

Me disagreeing with it is not what I’m referring to. Yes, it was stupid and evil. It also hasn’t really done anything other than the opposite of he said it would when it hasn’t done nothing at all.

“We have to fix healthcare to fix the economy!” In reality, he had to dick around with healthcare to distract from a total impotence on the economy. I figure dicking around with tin-horns is the same principle applied to foreign policy.

You still haven’t gotten it yet, apparently. We still have a few years.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Btw, take note that that is your big retort, a big boondoggle in the midst of the depression. I’m not even sure how much Obama actually did other than open the doors to wish lists of people in his party, but your retort is duly noted. You judge by the size of the intervention. I judge by results. Also interesting is if ACA were ruled unconstitutional, which it probably should have been, your 1 in the box score would be a donut.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm

http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/06/06/more-americans-oppose-obamacare-than-ever-before/

On the one hand, that is kind of an accomplishment of a special degree of specialness.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm

And one should keep in mind that THIS is the court that ruled it constitutional by a red hair after having to torture the language:

http://jonathanturley.org/2013/06/17/the-price-of-silence-supreme-court-rules-that-pre-miranda-silence-can-be-used-against-defendant-to-prove-guilt/

dearieme June 19, 2013 at 6:35 pm

A Kenyan birthmother? Good God, what foresight – he’s already arranged a country that will give him asylum.

RPLong June 19, 2013 at 8:43 am

I have to quibble with your #3. Why are you contrasting utilitarianism with deontology? Utilitarianism can be viewed as a form of deontology, and consequentialism could also be contrasted against both of these. Or, indeed, there might be utilitarian or deontological consequentialism.

But in any case, there is no particularly good reason to assume that an ideological stance is less utilitarian than a pragmatic stance, which I think is what you’re getting at.

Therapsid June 19, 2013 at 8:49 am

The answer connects to your previous post on cosmopolitanism and Mexican beach real estate – the political establishment in the U.S. is comprised of cosmopolitan elites who have no loyalty to America. This is why Obama, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, et al. agree with David Cameron, Francois Holland, and Benjamin Netanyahu on Syria and not with the American people who entrusted them with political office.

Incidentally, it’s worth nothing how Tyler burns with the white heat of moral indignation over the Turkish Prime Minister’s use of tear gas against protesters but retains a sphinx-like philosophical detachment when it comes to America becoming involved in yet another war.

Benny Lava June 19, 2013 at 8:50 am

Man Andrew Sullivan is an idiot. I’m glad you don’t link to him often. Obama’s foreign policy is fairly consistent and I see Syria as falling in line with policy he proposed in 2008. So far intervention in Syria will be similar to intervention in Libya. As in it will be cheap, will cost no US soldiers, and will improve the US brand abroad. A lot of the carping over this issue sounds like ODS to me.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 9:25 am

What did Obama propose in 2008? What did his supporters think he proposed? Did he correct them?

mw June 19, 2013 at 9:43 am

I strongly agree with this interpretation for most FP/nat. sec. things Obama has done. But in this case it’s definitely not obvious it’s in our interest to arm the rebels given their demonstrated proclivities, nor do I think we have a clear stake in the fight. Certainly we don’t want another failed state over there, but who’s to say this won’t be that even if it succeeds?

To be fair, the published reports have indicated that Obama was dragged kicking and screaming into this by the entire defense apparatus (in a way there was no indication of regarding NSA, drones, etc, other things that I would put under your cheap, no US lives, in interest of security category). But that’s hardly an excuse.

Andrew June 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm

So, what you guys are saying is Obama hasn’t renegged on every promise except the one to create the unpopular and constitution by a red hair Obamacare?

Dragged kicking and screaming? Well, you make him sound like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt had a love child with Bill Clinton and George S. Patton. A true man of action, decisiveness and accomplishment!

Benny Lava June 19, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Certainly there is room for debate on whether to intervene and if so by how much. From afar one might make the claim that Syrian is already a failed state. But I do think the problem of the Middle East are structural and that brings dangers. Will US intervention, even if in a small way such as selling arms, bring the Mideast closer to the US side? Would the Taliban groups stop targeting the US?

Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East has involved a light hand (relative to Bush) and turned out to be on the winning side in Libya. One has to wonder if he will be so lucky a second time.

Tom West June 19, 2013 at 11:18 am

A lot of the carping over this issue sounds like ODS to me.

By comparison with the ODS that I read around the internet, protest here doesn’t come close to qualifying. Many people have legitimate worries about increased intervention and where it might lead, and dismissing their worries as ODS is unfair.

When they start talking about Obama’s deliberate attempt to kill tens of thousands of American soldiers in order to make it easier for the USA to be invaded by Kenya, then you have a case :-).

Benny Lava June 19, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Months ago conservatives were for intervention and now they are doing an about face right on cue:
http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/17/conservatives_call_for_obama_to_intervene_in_syria

Or, Classic ODS.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Ummm, did you look at that list of names?

Ralph Waldo Emerson June 19, 2013 at 10:08 pm

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Clearly it’s impossible that one could be for intervention initially, only to back off when it becomes clear that an initial power vacuum on the side of the rebels has resulted in outsized
influence for AQ. Nope, just ODS, plain and simple.

mw June 19, 2013 at 10:21 pm

No it’s certainly possible. But is it probable?

A good Bayesian would note that almost every, if not every, major policy switch by Republicans and conservative thinktanks has come after its being embraced by democrats. And moreover that is the rational, incentivized response for them to take.

JWatts June 20, 2013 at 12:16 pm

A good Bayesian would not cherry pick his data to arrive a desired conclusion.

dearieme June 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm

“will improve the US brand abroad”. Hope springs eternal.

PhilipsN June 19, 2013 at 9:14 am

Lord Acton figured out this issue a long time ago– “Power Corrupts”

Sitting atop the most powerful state & military-machine in the history of mankind … changes one’s attitudes & actions for the worst.

” Great men are usually evil men” — Lord Acton

— Lord Acton

Marc Roston June 19, 2013 at 9:16 am

Does an all volunteer military force provide positive feedback to a trend toward more interventionism? That seems pretty obvious.

I certainly don’t want a draft. I certainly respect the decision and commitment by members of an all volunteer military. However, it is really hard to imagine that (a) intervention would be as “easy” without a standing military who actually signed up for the prospect of battle, and that (b) actually instituting a draft to assemble troops for an intervention would make intervention very costly.

This smacks of a social welfare/time inconsistency problem? As the AVF decisions are a little before my time, I’m curious if this came up at the time?

Ted Craig June 19, 2013 at 10:11 am

We had a de facto draft in Iraq via the National Guard.

Rahul June 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm

How? Aren’t they volunteers too.

Ted Craig June 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm

They are volunteers, but most join with different expectations than the traditional military. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 400,000 National Guardsmen were deployed overseas. By comparison, fewer than 9,000 were sent to Vietnam.

Benny Lava June 19, 2013 at 3:15 pm

We had a draft and saw intervention in Korea and Vietnam so I don’t see how the draft or lack thereof changes the intervention equation.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm

It’s in the name: National. Guard.

I think the draft argument goes that hopefully the intervention with a draft will be so much bigger that it will kill enough Americans that the ones who didn’t have to die will get upset.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm

(the pro draft argument is wrong, btw. Presidents just intervene with whatever army they have.)

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly June 19, 2013 at 9:17 am

Constant exposure to the human tragedies probably also plays a role. As a candidate or private citizen, it’s easy enough to tune out human suffering when you don’t want to intervene; as President, your daily intelligence briefings are probably making it impossible to do that. The more an individual reads about the suffering going on in a given part of the world, the more they might be inclined to do something about it – this basic personal impulse can then dovetail with whichever of the factors mentioned above happens to work for the situation.

Andrew Farrand June 19, 2013 at 9:29 am

A 7th possibility: Each president has a consistent level of affinity for foreign intervention, but doesn’t like to admit it until he/she is elected. Perhaps presidential candidates downplay their affinity for foreign intervention in their campaign rhetoric in order to appeal to an electorate that is averse to foreign intervention, or at least does not value it as highly as presidents do, for a variety of reasons.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 9:35 am

The Straussian reading of Roissy?

anon June 19, 2013 at 9:38 am

(as stated above, Acton was right, power corrupts)

8. Presidents and their advisers forget history, “because this time is different” (often mixed with “this president is special”)

9. Leaders having domestic problems (e.g., in the US: lousy economy, infringing on the Bill of Rights, NSA, IRS, Fast and Furious, Benghazi, EPA, etc., etc.,; in China, Chinese worker unrest, one party rule, no place to put savings inflating real estate, pollution, etc., etc.) like to change the focus to foreign affairs especially foreign threats, because “politics stops at the waters edge” (or some BS).

wrparks June 19, 2013 at 10:33 am

“this time is different” probably means “we are smarter than they were and won’t make the same mistakes. They discount the problems that (may) arise from their own mistakes.

derek June 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

It is always about me. The obvious center of the universe is an office in Washington. The whims of it’s temporary occupants are the main driver of all events. Due to some psychological or political or internal power play Syria then responds and decides to erupt in violence, so far attracting the Russians, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah and Israel into it’s conflict.

Obviously none of this would have happened if Romney had won the election because he wouldn’t be thinking these thoughts in his first term.

I would suggest that reality is far different, and if Washington enters into the picture it is because events have finally penetrated the thick blanket of stupidity that covers that city. The denizens of Washington have an amazing ability to tell themselves stories that they believe and act on. Usually they are 180 degrees wrong in everything, with rare exceptions. Sullivan’s blatherings are either how dare the world prove us wrong, or another attempt to tell ourselves how right we really are except for these immature and strange psychological phenomena where someone dares to consider reality.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 9:51 am

It is odd that incorrigible statists need to learn that stability might be preferable to civil war and anarchy, but they have to be personally involved in learning it multiple times in a single decade. As my mom used to say, the smart learn from others’ mistakes. The thick need to learn from their own mistakes. The rock dumb just keep making mistakes.

Cambias June 19, 2013 at 10:00 am

There is always pressure to “be seen to be doing something.” A problem exists, and “something must be done.” Therefore Presidents intervene, because that’s “doing something.”

Given Obama’s known penchant for making huge sweeping statements without necessarily following them up with action, it will be interesting to see exactly how much intervention actually happens in Syria. Since it’s hard for the President to fit the Syrian civil war into his usual faculty-lounge Marxist template of “rich capitalist oppressors vs. virtuous poor people” he may wind up saying much but doing little.

ChrisA June 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm

This. Imagine a president saying “I plan to do nothing about this problem”. He would be castigated by the media.

Dana June 19, 2013 at 10:00 am

Is there something related to #3 and #4 where responsibility tends to invite trust in what is now THEIR team to execute any given plan? Especially after several years in office, it’s no longer an anonymous “national security establishment”.

DanC June 19, 2013 at 10:49 am

To get elected politicians must maximize votes and money. They take a more passive, or often obscure, tone toward military action and general security questions. Once elected the fear of inaction in the face of some “crisis”, especially against the advice of entrenched establishments, is seen as too great a risk.

Say that a candidate thinks that their is a 70% chance that inaction is the correct path and that path helps them in the election. He will support inaction.
As president he thinks that their is a 70% chance that inaction is the correct path. But the fear that their is a 30% chance that he is wrong includes a 10% chance that he will be very wrong and vilified in history. The 10% chance of inaction causing a disaster weighs heavier on a President then a candidate.

Zach June 19, 2013 at 10:56 am

1) Weak presidents tend to avoid criticism and be led by their staff.

1a) For America at this moment in history, it is simple to build a case for intervention based around capability to intervene plus moral outrage. Given sufficient study, a superficial case for intervention can almost always be made.

2) Obama is an unusually weak president who has little constituency among the civil service, and little experience of the world which would enable him to steer its deliberations.

3) Obama was an unusually inexperienced candidate, who had no idea how to implement the policies he seemed to propose, or the difficulties involved in doing this. He therefore had little personal attachment or investment in these policies, and feels little contradiction when they change.

4) A policy of secrecy and covert action allows Obama an extremely large disparity between his publicly avowed policies and his privately pursued policies.

Note that except for point 4, all of these points could be applied just as easily to Bush regarding the Iraq war.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 11:59 am

You obviously don’t know what you are talking about since Obama said he’d be in favor of people putting together a by an RCH constitutional healthcare reform bill and then he signed it. Not only that, he beat Hilary and Edwards and Romney.

Dan Weber June 19, 2013 at 11:37 am

The United States has a huge comparative advantage: it can destroy stuff more efficiently than anyone else in the world.

If the goal is to destroy enough of the Syrian military to do some combination of a) stop chemical weapons or other perceived war crimes, b) help the rebels win; then doing things like destroying Syria’s air force would be incredibly cheap for the government, as well as taking positive steps towards the goal.

Finch June 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Then why are we arming the rebels instead of conducting airstrikes? Airstrikes I could kind of understand for reasons you articulate, even if I’m not really sure whether I’d agree with them.

In this particular instance it strikes me that we are backed into a corner because our fearless leader said something stupid and can’t bring himself to take it back.

Dan Weber June 19, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Arming the rebels does seems quite dangerous. Like asking for a replay of arming the Afghanistan rebels against the USSR only to have them turn against us. Maybe

1. the US is not arming them enough to make a real difference, but enough for a political and/or negotiating difference.

2. the US has specific local knowledge about the various rebel groups and is trying to give power to one over the other.

3, the US is hoping for something unrealistic.

Did the red line say that we had to arm the rebels? I’m not sure why being backed into a corner means getting backed into this specific one.

Finch June 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I don’t think we said what the specific response would be, other than that it was interpreted as “intervene.”

I did wonder about the observability of this intervention. Suppose we don’t really want to intervene, we just said that in the heat of the moment. If you ship a crate of AK-47s to Syria, you’ll have no material effect on the conflict, but you can say you intervened in a way that’s very hard to confirm, investigate, or otherwise criticize. Airstrikes are obvious to everybody.

Richard T. June 19, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Politicians hate to take anything back. Like Popes, they want their flock to think they’re infallible. (With about as much reason.)

Bill Harshaw June 19, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Do we count Eisenhower as an interventionist President or not? How about Nixon or GHWbush? I would think those two would be good test cases for the theories, several of which assume an relative novice in the international sphere, as perhaps, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, GWB, or Obama.

Mick June 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Or, as Bill Hicks so clearly stated…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MRykTpw1RQ

dirk June 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Perhaps it is time for Tolstoy’s view of history to rise. Napoleon is powerless and without free-will. His actions are dictated by the sum of all the little forces created by the actions of those whom he only appears to command.

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Ironically, if we believed that we might be less adamant about regime-change…or whatever they will start calling it this time.

Andreas Moser June 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Because they notice that (1) the world is even messier without interventions by the world’s sole remaining superpower and (2) other international actors like the EU usually just sit back and watch or, if they find a lot of energy, “condemn” atrocities.

JWatts June 19, 2013 at 2:34 pm

A minor quibble. I’d say the EU is pretty active about condemning atrocities but if backed into a corner will agree to sanctions. But other than that, I think you got it about right.

albatross June 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

First, it looks to me, as an outsider, like we intervene enormously more often than makes sense. Similarly, it looks like we do a lot of things in the name of the war on terror that don’t make much sense. Various political candidates agree when running for office, but then seem to change their minds in office. That’s the mystery, that’s why we need an explanation, right?

I suspect #1, #2, #4, and #5 are all big factors.

The sort of person who wants to become president is probably inclined toward intervention in all sorts of ways (intervention by government into private lives or markets, intervention by our military into foreign countries, etc). If you didn’t feel like you could do a lot of good with that kind of power, and like there was a lot of good to be done with that kind of power, why would you run for president?

Along with that, as president your sources of information about the world change radically, as do your sources of informed thought about the world. The intelligence services and the military must have a very different worldview, a different set of obsessions and blind spots than the normal media or the academic literature in, say, economics or foreign policy. And different parts of the administration will have different takes on stuff–I’ll bet the institutional worldview of the FBI is quite different from that of the NSA, and both must be quite different from that of the State Dept.

In one sense, that means being better informed. But in another sense, it means being captured by your sources of information, all of whom are successful politicians of sorts, all of whom have far more expertise about the subject at hand than you possibly can. And I imagine that everyone anywhere close to the president, other than his family and old friends, is involved one way or another in “selling” the boss on something, or pushing a worldview. It must be like hanging around very effective salesmen all the time.

And at the same time, those sources of information are also very powerful players, who have to be kept on your side if you want to be a successful president. It was striking to watch how quickly Obama backed off on the release of torture photos, ending up 100% behind protecting everyone involved in torturing prisoners from any consequences. My guess there is that the new information he learned in office was that the military and intelligence services were *way* too powerful to cross for anything as trivial as a few war crimes committed on people with no powerful defenders.

pritesh June 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

In terms of power, if you are not the President, you don’t have the power to intervene( no matter how much you want to intervene).

Barkley Rosser June 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm

I think many of the reasons given hold, but the matter about focus on foreign policy in a president’s second term can cut several different ways, with many of the prezzes who got reelected becoming less hawkish in their second terms, although that reduced hawskishness often came with a focus on making international agreements. So, since WW II:

Truman arguably became more hawkish with the Korean War. But then, he did not go out of his way to choose that, given that it was North Korea that started it, backed by the Soviets and Chinese, with their invasion of South Korea.

Eisenhower probably did not change his focus regarding foreign policy all that muc between his two terms. He brought the Korean War to an end after the death of Stalin early in his first term and participated in the “thaw” with the Soviets that culminated in the first Geneva conference in 1955 that led to the Austrian state treaty. However, events in his second term involved some heating back up of the Cold War, mostly due to Soviet actions such as crushing the Hungarian uprising and the Soviets launching a satellite before us. Much of this involved the volatile Khrushchev coming to power, with whom Ike seemed to have good personal relations (two bald grandfathers from rural backgrounds), but things went up and down, with events such as the U2 incident souring relations when they were improving. Not at all a clear picture for this one.

LBJ arguably got more hawkish on Vietnam, but this involved overturning his own campaign promises, having run as the relative dove against Goldwater. I remember the old bumper sticker, “They told me if I voted for Goldwater, we would have escalate war in Vietnam, and they were right.” OTOH, it is also known that LBJ was unhappy about it all, with the war damaging his historical rep gained from some favorable domestic achievements such as the civil rights laws and Medicare. He chose not to run again in 68 clearly due to his foreign policy failure, although he may not count as a real two-term president.

Nixon also may not count, given his resignation part way through, but he is also a mixed bag. He was clearly always strongly interested in foreign policy. He initiated an early escalation of the Vietnam War, apparently to try to gain the ability to later get out, perhaps a prelude to the odd policy of Obama in Afghanistan in his first term, escalating only as a prelude to ending it. Nixon went to China in his first term, also as part of a anti-Soviet move. However, he also initiated, with the help of Kissinger, the beginning of detente with Brezhnev. There were some bad moments with the Soviets early in his second term with the Yom Kippur war in late 73 and the Black September biz in Jordan, both of which brought on some of the highest DefCon levels the US ever reached, reportedly, but, of course he became consumed with Watergate pretty quickly in his second term. Arguably Ford’s partial term was the continuation of Nixon’s second, and Ford allowed Kissinger to push the detente policy with the Soviets and bring about the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 75, with his pacifistic moves allowing Carter to run to the right of him on foreign policy in 76.

Reagan was hawkish in his first term, particularly with Star Wars and the extremely scary period after the Korean airliner shootdown when Andropov was in charge. In his second term, Reagan was a peacemaker dealmaker with the easier-to-deal-with Gorbachev after he came to power a month after Reagan’s second term began.

I do not see an obvious pattern with Clinton. It was charged that he did things like attack al Qaeda camps in order to distract us from that dreadfully important Lewinsky scandal, but then it turned out that Clinton was right that al Qaeda was a serious threat to US national security after all, making the Lewinsky impeachment scandal look like the ludicrous farce and distraction from anything serious that it always was. Actually, the Clinton period highlights something that has also come into play with some other two-termers, that Congress, or at least one house of it, becomes controlled by the opposition party later in one’s presidency, which makes it harder to engage in any major domestic initiatives. This obviously pushes prezzes more into foreign policy activities of one sort or another.

As for Bush, Jr., well, he was at his most aggressive on foreign policy in his first term. The attack on Afghanistan was an obvious move in response to 9/11, but Iraq had nothing to do with it, a clearcut war of choice that was opposed by most of the rest of the world. In his second term he seemed to get out from under super hawk Cheney somewhat and began to scale things back at bit. Indeed, it is easy to forget that the withdrawal from Iraq made by Obama was simply the carrying out of a promise made by Bush to al-Maliki.

As for Obama, heck, his intervention in Libya was more vigorious, if of a supposedly ridiculous “leading from behind” sort, than is what he is apparently proposing to do in Syria, where no no fly zone is being proposed. I do not see much of a shift in his approach to foreign policy at all in his second term from his first. Where is it? What is it? Looks like mostly more of what he was already doing, which to a large extent amounted to a third term for W. Bush.

CPV June 19, 2013 at 3:37 pm

#3 -(Sort Of).

It’s the asymmetry of cost / benefit of intervention and intelligence gathering versus a really bad event (terrorist attack/genocide)that the President gets blamed for. The bias will always be towards incurring distributed costs in society and military versus direct costs to the Presidency.

Tom T. June 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I like how Tyler name-drops the fact that he saw the Superman movie at the art-house cinema. No mall-goer he!

Andrew' June 19, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Too many hot chicks at the mall.

One of my initial thoughts about the new utilitarianism of Supes was “is this an indicator that we are becoming more autistic?”

Jonas June 19, 2013 at 6:52 pm

They start to believe in the symbolic power of never being powerless/wrong/inconsistent. Everything you said is basically encapsulated by what this senior aide told Obama: “a senior aide repeatedly told him: ‘Superpowers don’t bluff’.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10122567/How-President-Barack-Obama-became-convinced-of-need-to-arm-Syrian-rebels.html

I’m pretty sure he didn’t believe this when he started, especially since he used to be a cautious poker player. Everyone bluffs. A person who doesn’t bluff cannot win as much, in a game involving random factors. The statement that you don’t bluff is itself a bluff, and now that he’s in for 2 terms, is one they he cannot back down easily. At least on smaller issues, like Syria.

And in the overall scheme of things, Syria is a small issue, at least in the next 3 years (remainder of his term). A big enough issue like Iran, he might reconsider (not that he would fold, but he could fold). Syria he’s delayed for a while, but now he’s gotta carry through a little bit.

bjg June 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Most of the explanations advanced above seem to me to be over-complicated. I suspect that the truth is rather simpler.

1. Presidents have little power to achieve anything in domestic affairs.
2. Foreigners have no votes in US elections and almost no influence in US political affairs.
3. Killing foreigners is therefore almost cost-free for US presidents; it may indeed garner extra support from manufacturers of weapons and their friends.
4. A president who wants to give the impression of achieving something should therefore kill foreigners.

bjg

ac June 19, 2013 at 10:17 pm

“rational implication of Bayesian updating” seems to have become shorthand for “change to the position that *I* support because it’s clearly the most rational”

Not saying your statement is true or untrue (I cannot tell, because it’s so ambiguous), but really, people need to stop using it to sound “rational”

MyName June 20, 2013 at 5:59 am

A whole lot of BS in these comments from people who are so focused on Obama and his perceived shortcomings that they ignore the initial question in favor of cheap attacks.

So my opinion is that, while there may be a trend towards interventionism, it has little to do with Presidental action and more to do with the expectations of the people who elected them. The majority of voters in the US want us to take more action than we have, so the next choices for office both lean more towards action than the previous ones for either party.

Obama actually seems less interventionist than the run of Reagan through Bush II, but he had a large number of economic issues slowing him down, in addition to two wars already going. It may be a sign of things turning around that the administration feels they have the resources to intervene at all. The last time the President had this much trouble at the start of its term was Ford or Carter, and that was of a different kind.

JWatts June 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm

So my opinion is that, while there may be a trend towards interventionism, it has little to do with Presidental action and more to do with the expectations of the people who elected them. The majority of voters in the US want us to take more action than we have.

The facts don’t really support this.

Washington: A majority of Americans oppose Obama administration’s decision to arm anti-government groups in Syria, a new poll has found.

According to the Pew Research Center Poll, 70 percent of Americans don’t want the United States and allies to send arms and military supplies to those Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

triclops June 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

it can be summed up by “we must do something!”
the pressures are very asymmetrical.
intervene now and at least you are trying, and the conclusion of failure is years away.

don’t intervene and anything that goes bad over there is your fault, because you didn’t even try.

Simple Machine June 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm

7. Presidents want to do things. Considering our political system, it turns out that those things won’t be domestic.

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