Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.
It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.
And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)
And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?
Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.
All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.
Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.
Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:
“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.
“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.
“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.
“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.
“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/02/daniel-ellsberg-limitations-knowledge)
Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.