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.