As we evaluate leadership and how it affects our country’s conduct abroad, distinguish between two questions we commonly ask about candidates for president:
Is there a difference between the two candidates?
Will either candidate make a difference?
Both questions are related to the general argument: “Things won’t change no matter which candidate I vote for, so what difference does it make whether I vote or not?”
The two questions about candidates, and consequences of electing one or the other, tend to get pushed together during more ordinary elections. We expect our conduct will not change because no real difference exists between the two major party candidates. They won’t make a difference because they both have a big investment in the status quo – in the way things work now. If they didn’t have a big investment in the way things work now, they wouldn’t be major party candidates.
This year, we have an interesting case. One of the major party candidates has a big investment in the status quo, and one does not. One candidate declares that one of her main objectives in office will be to preserve the way things operate now, and have operated for some time. She has not left us guessing how she will conduct herself. Meantime, the other candidate has so little investment in the status quo, he indicates openly he does not care to lead the party that just nominated him. He suggests some things he wants to do, but few believe in his steadfastness.
Thus we have this year two candidates who differ in their strengths and weaknesses, in their general beliefs about leadership and politics, and in the directions they want to lead the country. That tells us little, however, about whether either candidate would make a difference in the way the national government operates if given keys to the White House. So the question occurs again, without enough information to make good predictions: does it make a difference which way you vote?
For the Democrats, analysis is easier, as their candidate states she is not interested in change. She wants to improve on her predecessor’s legacy. Nevertheless, serious conflicts, unexpected challenges and threats abroad can always force presidents to embark on unforeseen initiatives. That applies to Republicans as well as Democrats. For Republicans, analysis becomes substantially more difficult, because their candidate is so unpredictable. Would Donald Trump be able to impel government to change, even if he wanted to do that?
To help answer that question, compare U. S. foreign policy from 2001-2008 with U. S. foreign policy from 2009-2016. Obama argued vigorously during his 2008 presidential campaign that he would not pursue his predecessor’s foreign policy. Numerous critics charged his Republican predecessor with incompetence, dishonesty, lack of transparency, strategic blunders, bad outcomes, poor planning and decision making, and above all, policies of torture and aggression that weakened America’s leadership and influence in the world. For the most part, candidate Obama let others in his party make these arguments for him. He did not disagree with them. The disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush’s administration assured John McCain’s defeat.
Did President Obama act on any of these criticisms after his inaugural address? Did he try to obviate them. He did not. His administration’s foreign policy continued what came before. No one could quite believe it at first. He made Republican foreign policy, and the need to end it, a major part of his campaign’s rationale.
Even his apparent initiatives strengthened continuity. For instance, Republicans criticized Obama for pulling out of Iraq prematurely, but in fact Republicans had set Iraqi sovereignty as one of their main goals quite early. No country is sovereign when it has foreign armed forces garrisoned on its territory. Obama fulfilled Bush’s vision on that score and many others. Surveillance, secrecy, mistreatment of prisoners, drone warfare, aggressive use of force on the ground and in the air, exploitation of allies rather than collaboration with them, growth of opposition powers and myriad armed groups: all of these practices and outcomes continued to give us sixteen catastrophic years of our new national security state, rather than eight.
We don’t have enough perspective or distance at this point to know why Obama failed so utterly to promote the changes he promised. He may have believed his own idealism during the campaign, then realized his errors after he took office. He may have known ahead of time that he could not change the direction of American foreign policy. He may have decided after January 2009 that he wanted to concentrate on domestic changes, such as health care reform, rather than changes in the way the United States conducts itself abroad.
Whether cynical or idealistic, calculated or muddled, the degree of continuity in Obama’s foreign policy – by comparison with motives and actions that characterized his predecessor’s policies – is remarkable. Nothing in his pre-election rhetoric suggested anything but sincerity in his stated plans to change direction in the country’s national security policies. Nothing in his pre-election rhetoric suggested any desire to strengthen the status quo.
I say, with what sounds like more flippancy than I intend, that the last president who truly tried to change our country’s national security state got his head blown off. Kennedy’s successors know what happened in 1963, and why. They understand the context and requirements of power in the United States. They understand what may be a political leader’s primary rule for survival in the United States: don’t f**k with the national security state. If you do, the national security state will be ruthless in its response.
Obama may have felt some partiality for Edward Snowden’s effort to save his country from tyranny – “we welcome this conversation” about privacy and security, the president declared. Yet he knew better than to oppose the national security state on the issue. I don’t want to suggest that every president who opposes national security agencies with enough vigor to earn their enmity is bound to be assassinated. Public executions are rare events. I do want to suggest that presidents who consider such opposition know they will fail, and know the outcomes will not be good. They decide to spend their political energy and capital elsewhere.
That leaves voters with a lot of doubt whether a leader of Donald Trump’s caliber could ever bring about changes, least of all in the national security area. Aggressive as military and intelligence leaders are, you have to wonder if they would sign off on some of Trump’s more fantastic ideas about how to win or end the various wars we have fought since 9/11. Ultimately Trump’s foreign policy proposals are as incoherent as his proposals in every other arena. If nothing else, national security leaders want a reasonable degree of predictability and coherence.
Based on Trump’s rhetoric, temperament and aims, his prospective actions and purposes in office may appear less predictable than Obama’s did in 2008. Yet Obama’s emphasis on continuity turn out to surprise supporters who hoped for new directions. You can identify one clear pattern, though: the national security state does not let itself be crossed without resistance. From its point of view, presidents come and go. Cabinet members and whole administrations come and go. The state endures.
One thing persists, aside from institutional memory: people who stand on the ramparts, self-appointed heroes who, in their own eyes, protect their country from harm. Edward Snowden showed all of us that these self-appointed heroes actually betray the Constitution. Far from heroes who protect us and our freedom, they secretly, then brazenly increase their own freedom while they diminish ours. No president who refrains from open opposition to this slowly growing tyranny can ever succeed in fighting it. Moreover, when citizens accept leaders who follow the primary rule for political survival – don’t cross the national security state – citizens will never make a difference, no matter which way they vote.