Why Have a Democracy?

 

(Photo: Eliot Cohen by Eric Gibson/ New America via Wikipedia)

Eliot Cohen is a Never-Trump, former Bush Administration State Department official who was interviewed on the “Limited Liability” podcast released April 13 by Jewish Insider. Assessing the situation in Ukraine, Cohen heavily criticized all three of the post-Bush 43 Administrations. But this quote is what stood out for me:

The Trump administration was very peculiar in that it was a little bit like 18th century France, you know, where the king had one foreign policy and the, you know, foreign policy establishment of the time had a different foreign policy, sometimes diametrically opposed. And, you know, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the, you know, sort of the H.R. McMasters and John Boltons in this world were actually resolutely anti-Russian. Trump was not. Trump was pro-Putin. (27:42 to 28:08)

Neither of the hosts, former Trump official Rich Goldberg or former Obama official Jerrod Bernstein, pushed back in any way. And that’s appalling in and of itself. A statement such as this shows that, according to the foreign policy “experts,” the President of the United States should have no say in the policy of the country he was elected to lead. As long as there is a “consensus” among the elites, the opinions of the President and the people are irrelevant. (And that’s not even touching on the veracity of the “pro-Putin” remark.)

So, as the Never-Trumpers drone on about “saving our democracy,” I ask “What democracy?” I certainly do not support giving any president of any party a blank check. But shouldn’t all the checks on the Executive come from the co-equal branches of the government and not from within the Executive Branch itself? If the President of the United States has no authority over his own constitutional branch of government, why have elections in the first place? We can just as easily autopilot ourselves into WWIII, no?

People like Cohen expect the President to be both their empty vessel and their fall guy when everything goes south. This is not the sign of a healthy “democracy.”

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Well, see, there’s your problem, EJ. You believe in the power of the Constitution and the division of powers. That will get you in trouble every time . . . 

    “What democracy,” indeed.

    • #1
  2. Kevin Schulte Member
    Kevin Schulte
    @KevinSchulte

    Interesting. All the pointy headed elites have been boogeyman manning Russia while poking the bear. 

    Our real enemy is China. And nary a concerning word concerning them. 

    Tells you who is buttering the pointy headed elites bread. 

    A pox be upon them. 

    • #2
  3. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    When you are in government those are the documents that give you your marching orders — not stream-of-consciousness podium musings or midnight tweets. I was occasionally approached by foreign counterparts asking what such-and-such a POTUS statement meant. I would generally avoid comment and tell them to wait until we see something in policy. Frankly, it simply isn’t possible to operate any other way.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that our massive permanent bureaucracy is a problem that badly needs fixing, but to do so you have to actually engage with the policies themselves. The fact is that Trump didn’t really do that, and the people who did engage on his behalf were the political appointees whom he selected for the job. If he wanted different policies he should have either (a.) engaged personally in policy development, or (b.) selected different people.

    • #3
  4. Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether Member
    Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether
    @Misthiocracy

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    • #4
  5. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Some describe the American republic as a representative democracy since our elected officials are chosen in a democratic election process, until recently.

    Larry Fink likes totalitarian governments because democracies are messy, the people don’t do what they are told to do by the elites.

    • #5
  6. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Jailer (View Comment):

    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    When you are in government those are the documents that give you your marching orders — not stream-of-consciousness podium musings or midnight tweets. I was occasionally approached by foreign counterparts asking what such-and-such a POTUS statement meant. I would generally avoid comment and tell them to wait until we see something in policy. Frankly, it simply isn’t possible to operate any other way.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that our massive permanent bureaucracy is a problem that badly needs fixing, but to do so you have to actually engage with the policies themselves. The fact is that Trump didn’t really do that, and the people who did engage on his behalf were the political appointees whom he selected for the job. If he wanted different policies he should have either (a.) engaged personally in policy development, or (b.) selected different people.

    And what we have now is better than the Trump era in what way?

    • #6
  7. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    JailerThe fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making.

    That Trump was not adept at the paperwork is not exactly the point. The idea that the policy of the Executive Branch is not moored to the views of the Executive is the point. Are you saying that McMaster and Bolton were waiting for Trump to fill out the proper blue forms before implementing the wishes of the President? Or are you saying he should have never trusted them to implement whatever he told them in meetings? 

    • #7
  8. DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax)
    @DonG

    Jailer (View Comment):
    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    Running the government is a lot of work.  It takes a knowledgeable and talented team.  Between Trump’s outsiderness and the GOP’s refusal to help provide staff, Team Trump was a disaster.  I also get that Trump over-valued loyalty to competency, but that too was an outgrowth of the nature of politics being a business of backstabbing.   

    For the pro-Putin comment, somebody needs to make the argument that peace is better than war, because the people in the “war business” are loudly and constantly making the case for more war.

    • #8
  9. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    Elliot Cohen: “you know, sort of the H.R. McMasters and John Boltons in this world were actually resolutely anti-Russian. Trump was not. Trump was pro-Putin.”

    Except that Trump was Putin’s nightmare President while Trump  may have said respectful things at times ( appropriate to one of Putin’s status) he was the only one to actually push back against Putin, particularly his oil concerns and to give real military hardware to the Ukraine. 

    • #9
  10. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Hank Rhody“The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    It’s not a republic if the people in charge aren’t the elected representatives. Write that on your blackboard 200 times.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Why is that important?  (I know why I think it’s important, but I’m not sure why the people who say it think it’s important.  It’s a topic that has puzzled me ever since I heard that line (from my parents and others) in the mid 50s.  I eventually figured out why it’s important to me, but I’m still not sure why other people care.) 

     

    • #11
  12. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Jailer (View Comment):

    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    When you are in government those are the documents that give you your marching orders — not stream-of-consciousness podium musings or midnight tweets. I was occasionally approached by foreign counterparts asking what such-and-such a POTUS statement meant. I would generally avoid comment and tell them to wait until we see something in policy. Frankly, it simply isn’t possible to operate any other way.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that our massive permanent bureaucracy is a problem that badly needs fixing, but to do so you have to actually engage with the policies themselves. The fact is that Trump didn’t really do that, and the people who did engage on his behalf were the political appointees whom he selected for the job. If he wanted different policies he should have either (a.) engaged personally in policy development, or (b.) selected different people.

    I see much in your comment as true and factual. I suspect Trump may not have had a fully-formed coherent foreign policy view when he took office, especially in the complex of contending military and economic powers and even more so with the undermining efforts within our own government. And in that latter category emerging plots against President Trump even before he was in office causing the dismissal of his choice as National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn. And there were other undermining efforts as well plus people taking important positions pretending support that was never there. Many things we look at are not complicated but I think it applies here.

    • #12
  13. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Jailer (View Comment):

    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    When you are in government those are the documents that give you your marching orders — not stream-of-consciousness podium musings or midnight tweets. I was occasionally approached by foreign counterparts asking what such-and-such a POTUS statement meant. I would generally avoid comment and tell them to wait until we see something in policy. Frankly, it simply isn’t possible to operate any other way.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that our massive permanent bureaucracy is a problem that badly needs fixing, but to do so you have to actually engage with the policies themselves. The fact is that Trump didn’t really do that, and the people who did engage on his behalf were the political appointees whom he selected for the job. If he wanted different policies he should have either (a.) engaged personally in policy development, or (b.) selected different people.

    And what we have now is better than the Trump era in what way?

    Who said I was advocating for what we have now?

    • #13
  14. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Jailer: The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making.

    That Trump was not adept at the paperwork is not exactly the point. The idea that the policy of the Executive Branch is not moored to the views of the Executive is the point. Are you saying that McMaster and Bolton were waiting for Trump to fill out the proper blue forms before implementing the wishes of the President? Or are you saying he should have never trusted them to implement whatever he told them in meetings?

    No, presidents don’t do paperwork. Responsible presidents do know what’s in their most important policy documents, and make sure they’re reflective of their worldview before they allow them to be published. 

    If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    • #14
  15. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Jailer If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    It depends on whether you countenance insubordination, doesn’t it? “I will do as I want until the President forces my hand” is an interesting philosophy of service. 

    • #15
  16. DrewInWisconsin, Oik! Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik!
    @DrewInWisconsin

    A bureaucracy asserting itself above the President is exactly how we got Impeachment 1.

    Vindman and his co-conspirators were upset that the President wasn’t doing foreign policy their way. NEver mind that the President has the authority and they do not. They (like so many in the executive branch) believed that their wishes and desires superseded their boss’s.

    They all should have been fired for insubordination. Alas, the “insubordinates” impeached their boss.

    • #16
  17. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Jailer : If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    It depends on whether you countenance insubordination, doesn’t it? “I will do as I want until the President forces my hand” is an interesting philosophy of service.

    That would indeed be distressing, were it the case. However, I don’t think that was the ethic generally held. I would instead characterize it as, “Absent other guidance, I will do as I think best.” (And, in the case of Mattis, “Should I receive guidance from which I strongly dissent, I will resign.”)

    • #17
  18. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Jailer : If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    It depends on whether you countenance insubordination, doesn’t it? “I will do as I want until the President forces my hand” is an interesting philosophy of service.

    Doesn’t the behavior of members of the President’s national security staff fostering an impeachment effort all related to the Chief’s direct dealing with another head-of-state tell us something about the attitudes of unelected bureaucrats knowing better what is good for the country? We can see what we are getting today when these functions are just hand-stamped by the President. I like what I’ve seen of Trump dealing with NATO and with German leaders with regard to getting fuel supplied by Russia.

    • #18
  19. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik! (View Comment):

    A bureaucracy asserting itself above the President is exactly how we got Impeachment 1.

    Vindman and his co-conspirators were upset that the President wasn’t doing foreign policy their way. NEver mind that the President has the authority and they do not. They (like so many in the executive branch) believed that their wishes and desires superseded their boss’s.

    They all should have been fired for insubordination. Alas, the “insubordinates” impeached their boss.

    You beat me on that one!

    • #19
  20. DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax)
    @DonG

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Why is that important? (I know why I think it’s important, but I’m not sure why the people who say it think it’s important. It’s a topic that has puzzled me ever since I heard that line (from my parents and others) in the mid 50s. I eventually figured out why it’s important to me, but I’m still not sure why other people care.)

     

    “Democracy” implies national control and fascism.  “Republic” implies state control and is anti-fascist.

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Why is that important? (I know why I think it’s important, but I’m not sure why the people who say it think it’s important. It’s a topic that has puzzled me ever since I heard that line (from my parents and others) in the mid 50s. I eventually figured out why it’s important to me, but I’m still not sure why other people care.)

     

    “Democracy” implies national control and fascism. “Republic” implies state control and is anti-fascist.

    It certainly doesn’t imply that to me.   Are there polling data to show that people make these inferences? 

    Democracy to me implies rule by the vote of the people, which can be tyrannical if that’s all there is. 

    Republic just implies representative government, which can also be tyrannical. 

    I want to have a democratic republic, but not just any old democratic republic.  

    • #21
  22. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Why is that important? (I know why I think it’s important, but I’m not sure why the people who say it think it’s important. It’s a topic that has puzzled me ever since I heard that line (from my parents and others) in the mid 50s. I eventually figured out why it’s important to me, but I’m still not sure why other people care.)

     

    “Democracy” implies national control and fascism. “Republic” implies state control and is anti-fascist.

    This difference is specifically why the fight over HR1, an attempt by Democrats to put complete control over all election processes in Washington, is so important to prevent loss of the Republic.

    • #22
  23. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    This is an interesting quote, though not a new idea to me.  Thanks for the post.

    My main reaction is that I don’t read Cohen’s remark as advocating the position that “the President of the United States should have no say in the policy of the country he was elected to lead.”  His remark, standing alone, doesn’t even quite claim that this happened.  Rather, it seems to me that Cohen claims that some of Trump’s top foreign policy advisors had different views.  It does not claim that they sabotaged Trump’s policies, though that may have happened.

    My own views on foreign policy changed quite a bit during Trump’s Presidency.  At the outset, I was glad to have folks like Mattis and Bolton in responsible positions, to advise the President and perhaps check him if he was inclined to do something crazy.  I used to be a neocon, essentially, and changed my mind about this.  So now, I’m less of a fan of Mattis, Bolton, or McMaster.

    • #23
  24. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    Why is that important? (I know why I think it’s important, but I’m not sure why the people who say it think it’s important. It’s a topic that has puzzled me ever since I heard that line (from my parents and others) in the mid 50s. I eventually figured out why it’s important to me, but I’m still not sure why other people care.)

     

    “Democracy” implies national control and fascism. “Republic” implies state control and is anti-fascist.

    It certainly doesn’t imply that to me. Are there polling data to show that people make these inferences?

    Democracy to me implies rule by the vote of the people, which can be tyrannical if that’s all there is.

    Republic just implies representative government, which can also be tyrannical.

    I want to have a democratic republic, but not just any old democratic republic.

    The Republic was created with all election processes in the hands of the states, no role for the federal government. 

    • #24
  25. Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether Member
    Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether
    @Misthiocracy

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody: “The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy.”

    Write it on the blackboard 200 times.

    It’s not a republic if the people in charge aren’t the elected representatives. Write that on your blackboard 200 times.

    That is simply factually incorrect. There have been plenty of republics throughout history that didn’t have elected representatives. The Roman Senate wasn’t elected during the Republic period.

    • #25
  26. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Hank RhodyThe Roman Senate wasn’t elected during the Republic period.

    I don’t give a rat’s behind about Rome. Even before the 17th Amendment elected officials picked Senators to represent the states. The American tradition is the only one I care to debate.

    • #26
  27. Leslie Watkins Member
    Leslie Watkins
    @LeslieWatkins

    Jailer (View Comment):

    So, I worked as part of the foreign policy “establishment” (as a military attache in an Embassy abroad) during the Trump years. The fact of the matter was the President paid very little attention to the nuts-and-bolts of his own Administration’s policy making. His own National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, etc. were produced by McMaster, Mattis, etc., but though they bore the President’s signature he clearly had very little interest in their contents.

    When you are in government those are the documents that give you your marching orders — not stream-of-consciousness podium musings or midnight tweets. I was occasionally approached by foreign counterparts asking what such-and-such a POTUS statement meant. I would generally avoid comment and tell them to wait until we see something in policy. Frankly, it simply isn’t possible to operate any other way.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that our massive permanent bureaucracy is a problem that badly needs fixing, but to do so you have to actually engage with the policies themselves. The fact is that Trump didn’t really do that, and the people who did engage on his behalf were the political appointees whom he selected for the job. If he wanted different policies he should have either (a.) engaged personally in policy development, or (b.) selected different people.

    Excellent comment. However, it doesn’t address E. J.’s primary complaint, that Cohen called Trump “pro-Putin” as if it were a given. That is too facile it seems to me and belies personal prejudice rather than an objective consensus from “the documents” you cite. I voted for Trump in 2020 but won’t in 2024. He’ll be too old, and he just can’t let go of the election. He seems smaller to me with every such utterance. That said, American diplomacy is a fraud, as is acutely obvious under Biden.

    • #27
  28. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Jailer : If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    It depends on whether you countenance insubordination, doesn’t it? “I will do as I want until the President forces my hand” is an interesting philosophy of service.

    Very common, I’m afraid.

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Jailer : If, as you assert, the policies of the Executive Branch’s hand-picked political appointees are “unmoored” from the Executive himself, whose fault is that?

    It depends on whether you countenance insubordination, doesn’t it? “I will do as I want until the President forces my hand” is an interesting philosophy of service.

    Very common, I’m afraid.

    It might be an improvement over, “I will stand in solidarity with the other members of the administrative ruling class.”

    • #29
  30. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Unsk (View Comment):

    Elliot Cohen: “you know, sort of the H.R. McMasters and John Boltons in this world were actually resolutely anti-Russian. Trump was not. Trump was pro-Putin.”

    Except that Trump was Putin’s nightmare President while Trump may have said respectful things at times ( appropriate to one of Putin’s status) he was the only one to actually push back against Putin, particularly his oil concerns and to give real military hardware to the Ukraine.

    I’m sure things will turn out much better because now we have a President who thinks the way to make peace in Europe is to excoriate the leader of one of the belligerents as a war criminal presiding over a genocide. Who also happens to be a partner for peace in the Middle East.

    I support Ukraine, but I also think the best course of action is to find a war ending solution. 

     

    • #30
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