JERUSALEM –The leap of Barack Obama from the academic and political provinces to the White House, and now Rick Santoram knocking at his door highlights a significant weakness of American democracy.
Democratic it is, but too much so when individuals with no experience in foreign policy can think of themselves in the Oval Office.
The fault lies in the direct election of the president. The framers designed the electoral college to deal with the problem, but it never really worked as intended. It suffered its first hiccup in 1800 when it produced a tie. By the middle of the 19th century, states began linking their electors to the popular vote. Party primaries, mass media, and now the Internet make the choice of the world’s leader into a popularity contest, open to demagogues who know how to push the most sensitive of buttons.
Experience in foreign policy is, arguably, important for the leader of the sole–or the most powerful–superpower. Among presidents during the era of global America with little or no qualifications have been Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. Truman, Reagan, and Clinton went into retirement without any major disasters. Biographers of George W. Bush will have to reckon with what may be one million dead Iraqis and no democracy there, no reform in Afghanistan, deterioration in Pakistan, as well as several thousand dead Americans and many others damaged. So far Obama has been less than elegant in dealing with Israel and Palestine, or with Egypt and Libya. We’re still wondering what, if anything, he will do about the carnage in oil-poor Syria. And then there is Iran.
Much different is the mode of choosing national leaders that prevails in parliamentary regimes. Typically a career begins in the back benches of parliament, where members are expected to listen and learn, maybe after an earlier stint in local government. Someone destined for greatness moves upward through minor ministerial appointments. There is no guarantee of brilliance or wisdom, but the process does expose eventual leaders to numerous problems other than those encountered in the classroom or local politics.
There is a problem in this analysis. Without a parliamentary democracy having the power to compete with the United States, we lack a good test of world leaders coming from one or another kind of regime.
Tip O’Neil made his reputation as a political philosopher with the line that “all politics is local.” Much of it is. Personal conflicts and the trading of favors count for a lot in a national arena. But those tricks do not make up for detailed information and a sense of how to read imperfect intelligence briefings when a leader has to make decisions about resource allocation or the application of military violence in a distant region of the world.
There is a long tradition of political scientists and others hoping to remake American government in the direction of Britain or some other parliamentary democracy. It ain’t gonna happen. More than two hundred and twenty years of learning about the wisdom of the founders, manifest destiny, and the superiority of things American make the country impervious to fundamental change. There is movement, but it is home-grown and incremental. Recent changes in the way of selecting the president have not earned great applause.
Most readers of these columns know that I spent the first half of my life in the United States, and the second half in this little parliamentary democracy, teaching political science in both places. The experience has sensitized me to the power and the clumsiness of the United States government outside of its national borders. It providesÂ those countries it selects for attention with resources and involvement that must be accepted as a package. It may be more sensitive than previous great powers in allowing some wiggle room at the receiving end of its aid and demands. The openness of American politics helps those countries, like Israel, with some leverage in Washington and other American localities. The fate of supplicants who claim to know their own needs could be a lot worse.
The most we can hope for is that the person in charge is bright enough to learn, and modest enough to recognize the limitations of the power and wisdom available in Washington. I don’t know enough about Rich Santorum to comment on his qualifications. Yet I worry about someone who has gotten as far as he, without a lot being known about his knowledge or inclinations in foreign policy. A strong belief in his version of a Christian God won’t help in this region. I hope he realizes that.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.Â He may be contacted at [email protected]