Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Obama Can’t Stand Up to His Generals—And That’s Dangerous

Professor Andrew J. Bacevich, The New Republic, Oct 4, 2010


“The President is an elected king,” wrote Randolph Bourne nearly a century ago, “but the fact that he is elected has proved to be of far less significance … than the fact that he is pragmatically a king.”

Bourne thereby identified a central truth of modern American politics: Stripped to its essence, our democracy has become an elaborate process of conferring enormous power on a single individual. What we choose to call an inauguration is more accurately a coronation. Nominally a chief executive, the president today occupies a position more akin to that of emperor, and Americans both expect much and demand much of their emperor.

To be “the most powerful man in the world” is to be simultaneously worshiped and despised. To occupy the Oval Office is to become the modern-day equivalent of a Sun King, commanding deference, while also becoming the subject of endless gossip, envy, jealousy, and intrigue, all to be reported at length and ad nauseam by Bob Woodward.

What lends this arrangement a semblance of legitimacy is the expectation that our president-monarch knows how to wield power effectively. Through the exercise of royal prerogatives, the king demonstrates his worthiness for high office.

Should a president demonstrate an absence of mastery—if he comes across as a weakling or a ditherer—profound dysfunction results. Recall the Carter era. Jimmy Carter’s inability to resolve the Iran hostage crisis reduced him to a figure of contempt and left Americans with a sense that the country itself was adrift. In short order, they stripped Carter of his crown.

Yet presidential weakness—even an inkling of weakness—can have international as well as domestic implications. This is notably the case in matters related to national security. If the occupant of the Oval Office appears less than fully in command, friend and foe alike will wonder who exactly is in charge.

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