Many members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: The best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one.
In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts.
The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments and agencies of the federal government and to the “presidential branch” of advisers on the White House staff or in one of the presidential agencies, such as the National Security Council. Indeed, the latter only exist because executive-branch bureaucrats cannot always be trusted to give president good advice, and therefore presidents have sought to assure themselves of independent sources of information.
That’s all good, but it also comes with risks—sometimes those dependent on the president for influence aren’t too quick to contradict him. Think back to, for example, decisions about the stimulus bill at the beginning of the Obama administration. Economic advisors certainly wanted to give good advice, but they also were probably hesitant to suggest a course of action that might jeopardize their chances to build a close relationship with the president, either because their advice contradicted his announced positions or because it might make them seem politically naïve. The point is that part of what the president hears is going to depend on the particular incentives of those who hears it from, and those aren’t always strictly for giving the best information.
All of this is even riskier than usual for a president when it comes to national security decisions. With most domestic policy issues, outside organized groups will insist on input. Presidents can use those attempts at influence to learn information which the bureaucracy might not volunteer.
When Obama was considering executive orders concerning Dreamers or guns or drug enforcement, he could count on the potentially affected groups to come forward and voice their concerns. Then, the president could challenge the agencies, knowing that there was an excellent chance the organized groups knew exactly what they were talking about. With foreign policy, on the other hand, much of the relevant information is classified, and in many cases relevant organized groups may not exist. If they do exist they may not even realize their interests are implicated in the decision.
Going to Congress helps. After all, while representatives and senators don’t know more than the president, they may know different information, including things he otherwise may find it hard to learn. They possess information because they, too, depend on it to make good choices. But since their choices are different, the sources they stay close to differ—from the White House, and from each other. Members from Louisiana and Texas may be particularly good at hearing the objections or support from the oil and gas industries; those from rural areas will hear the objections and support from farmers; and so on, across the immense range of organized interests in a large nation. Some of that knowledge may help a president understand vulnerabilities in a foreign-policy plan that he might not initially see—such as how Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo against the Soviet Union could harm American agriculture more than it would hurt the Soviets.
The partisan nature of the legislative branch's reaction to a president’s policy proposal is also helpful. When Congress takes sides, the president is able to see how strong his own party’s support for the policy might be, and how strong the out-party’s opposition is. That’s going to help the president make far better informed guesses about some crucial questions that the Pentagon and State Department can’t help him with. How long will the political system tolerate troop deployments? How many casualties will it take to turn people—and then their elected representatives—against (or further against) military action?
Public questioning of executive-branch officials (oddly enough, something that can’t really happen within the executive branch) can also generate answers that illuminate flaws in their reasoning, or even specifics about a situation which they were not eager to volunteer. A classic example was General Eric Shinseki’s public testimony about the need for a large occupying force in post-invasion Iraq—a clear signal to George W. Bush about what the military was really thinking, albeit one that Bush apparently totally ignored.
All of this information gathering is contingent on a president seeking it, as opposed to simply attempting to impose his personal policy preferences and trusting his own sense that they will succeed. And this more informed decision making comes with a risk: that at the end of the day, the political process will defeat the president's original preference or modify it significantly.
The engine to all of this is basic political self-interest. Politicians presumably will be very good at sniffing out what plays with their various constituencies (and so, too, will the leaders and employees of organized groups); perhaps even more important, they’ll be very good at seeing potential future danger spots. It doesn’t depend on them being issue specialists, or even knowing where Syria is on a map. It just depends on these politicians being good at finding and using information that helps them in their careers. Which, presumably, is the one skill that almost all high-level politicians share.
That includes the president. Another way of putting this, as political scientist Richard Neustadt did, is that presidents may often be best at finding viable public policy when they seek only to help themselves politically.
Presidents put themselves at risk when they listen only to experts, because it’s difficult for presidents to know when those experts are wrong. Even when the experts are credentialed. Even when the experts are seemingly “neutral” and work only for the government. Even when they are the very experts the president himself chose in the first place.
Even experts have self-interest, and even experts can be subject to groupthink or to other biases. Indeed, a government of bureaucrats has no shortage of expertise, but it’s a particular form of expertise, subject to its own set of biases.
The particular strength of democracies in forming public policy is that they take input from a wide variety of people who see the effects of the policy up close; the particular strength of the United States’s flavor of Madisonian democracy for policy formation is that, at its best, it is particularly good at bringing an especially diverse set of groups into that discussion, with all the different experiences and information sources that those groups can offer. Policy debates that are restricted to just the president and the executive branch fail to take advantage of those strengths, especially when much of the debate is conducted in secret. Getting these debates out of the White House and into Congress is exactly what a smart politician in the White House will do.