Character in politicians

“Ensuring a nation’s survival sometimes leaves tragically little room for private morality. Discovering the inapplicability of Judeo-Christian morality in certain circumstances involving affairs of state can be searing. The rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating-such morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries….” (The Return of Marco Polo’s World, Robert D. Kaplan)

I admire Kaplan’s experience, excellent writing, and usually careful and always well-informed thought. But what he says here has not been true of a Western country before the second world war, nor since its end.

Officials charged with the safety of the state must examine the whole context surrounding that responsibility (see Jack Goldsmith’s The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, which contains a good deal of history prior to Bush Sr., and Power and Constraint: the Accountable Presidency after 9/11; see also Charlie Savage’s Power Wars: Inside O’Bama’s Post-9/11 Presidency). Today, as in colonial times, it all too often seems that projection of state military power and covert operations into regions whose significance to the homeland are tangential and/or slight, is often undertaken “for the safety of the state.” (See some other Kagan writings in The Atlantic: “In Defense of Empire,” April 2014; “In Defense of Henry Kissenger,” May 2013; “Outsourcing Conflict,” Sept. 2007; “Supremacy by Stealth,” July/Aug. 2003). Morality and good character should question whether those projections are truly necessary for the safety of the state, or whether they primarily benefit commercial and political interests of a few at home (see, for example It should question whether the projections are launched simply because they can be – there is sufficient power in the forms of technology and vast numbers of people who are willing to be trained to kill (The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order Sean McFate). Just as some politicians participate in matters of state because they enjoy the blood sport of politics rather than because they want to accomplish high civic ideals, some operatives involved in those projections of power do so less because of state necessity, than because they enjoy and crave the risk (having been an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, I have met some of these). I’ve read the recent books by Gates, Tenet, Hayden, Clapper, Scowcroft/Bush, and Panetta, and I expect that they would disagree. But things often look very different from the top of the policy mountain than from almost any other location on it: now in the sixteenth year of formal, if Congressionally undeclared war, there may be less government and public sense of responsibility toward the military (including mercenaries) and agents (government and mercenary) because all these people are volunteers – danger to life and limb, although regrettable, is not tragic, because it’s not necessary and not involuntary. War is not necessarily regarded as a regrettable matter. So, the tools of “state necessity” are more easily used.

This is why morality, along with good judgement and an intuitive feeling for other human beings (see previous blog), which together may be a definition of character, are important in preserving the “safety of the state.” We who served in the Vietnam War all know that we were sent because of false reasons; the real reasons were kept secret. This seems to continue to be true (see NYT article linked above, and Directorate S: the CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Steve Coll, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Mark Mazzetti, and War on Peace: the End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow). There is no reason to trust the good sense (see Eugene Lang’s The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar and contrast it with Bill Graham’s The Call of the World, but a more positive impression may be made by Michael McFaul’s From Cold War to Hot Peace ), integrity, or sincerity of those who want to project power for the “safety of the state” – there are too many instances of desire to do this sort of thing without any attention to morality.

There is a religious teaching, “Be as wise as a serpent, and as innocent as a dove,” which I have understood to mean, “understand how the game is played by others, but don’t play it that way yourself.” This is particularly useful in public politics, and in the internal politics of organizations and groups, and in dealing with both competition and cooperation. In international relations, it at the very least requires a leader to take a step back and look at the big picture and the expected outcomes, rather than join in the game in progress.

You may not agree with my definition of character, but character shows itself, and its lack also shows. We today stand aghast as the President of the United States gives clear proof that he is willing to mistreat children physically and emotionally, in order to get his way. We also see that he has minions who are willing to do his bidding, lose peoples’ children, and send them away to sometimes commercial institutions at great distances from their parents. Why the minions’ obedience? Either because they agree with the directives, or because they never learned the conclusions of the Appomattox and Nuremburg trials: it doesn’t do to say you were just carrying out orders – you have an individual responsibility to evaluate the morality of them. Most especially when a head of state seems to follow Kaplan’s premise, it is necessary that people farther down the chain of command, especially those at the bottom, consider the morality.

Character in a politician involves having civic ideals which invest as much concern for their governed and for other political bodies (such as another province or country), as for their own political careers. It involves a willingness and ability, in thinking about potential policies, to consider the ethics of those acts, the effects on everyone and everything touched by the policy, and to allow feelings about those consequences to enter the unconscious and roll around a while in the gut, before assenting to, or promoting a policy. It involves holding as little confidential and secret as possible, because being secretive toward others makes it impossible to be honest with yourself. This character is something we should seek in our politicians and in their advisers and political operatives around them.

I admit that it is not always possible to evaluate the character of our decision makers in advance, but particularly in the past seventeen years, we can see how important character is. Would people of good character have been ones to approve or engage in renditioning, “black sites,” or torture? (See James Clapper Facts and Fears: he recounts an episode early in his intelligence career, of being slapped around and confined terribly during training to resist torture. He was assured that such measures would never really be used on anyone; later in the book he remembers this as he confronts Abu Ghraib and other such examples. I think these stories should be considered when evaluating the need to exercise morality at the very bottom and in between. On the other hand, Clapper has no tolerance for young Mr. Snowden.) Asking such a question eighteen years ago would have been quite unlikely. And it is possible that even the decision-makers of those days would never have imagined having to make such decisions. I certainly admit that in the first years of the millennium the fears, pressures, and suddenly extraordinary responsibilities pushed ‘way beyond any reasonable expectations. This is where character shows:   had their character been such that they looked over the broader context and the longer timeline, and had ethics or morality been more in the forefront of their character, their decisions might have been quite different, and the consequences for many much, much different. I don’t know who might have been exercising such character at lower levels of administration and operations, but it is quite possible that their character did reduce potentially greater harm and turpitude.

If we don’t know the true motivations and ethical and moral considerations of decision-makers, we cannot possibly give informed consent to their policies and actions. It’s not just a matter of hearing what they say, looking at the evidence (remember Secretary of State Powell’s speech in the U.N.?), or reading what they write. Those may be false in regard to facts, or incomplete, or deliberately deceptive regarding their intentions. But those policies and actions may come from within people whose qualities of character are so lacking that one should have no confidence in them or their judgement.

It is difficult to know about leaders’ character in the beginning, but rather than give in to decision cascades* we should pay attention from the very beginning, and perhaps also read attentively news-gathering interviews with them, and biographical data. In democracies, what politicians do, they do in our name; business leaders act within the boundaries of our social precepts, and of laws made by those same politicians who act in our names.

Keeping abreast of all this is impossible, of course, but knowing the moral character of the decision makers helps – if we have informed reasons to believe their character is lacking, then we withhold consent, and if we see them as having good character, we are likelier to consent for a while, for some distance, until better information appears.


*Example of decision cascades: day shift ER physician, a person of renown and highly respected, makes a diagnosis and prescribes a treatment for a patient; swing shift physician reviews earlier and current information, is doubtful about diagnosis or treatment, but, given the imminence of the earlier physician, concurs; midnight shift also reviews earlier and current material, considers that now two doctors have arrived at these conclusions, and so also concurs, despite doubts because of current evidence.


One thought on “Character in politicians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.