Second, policymakers have the ability to fully understand the beliefs and motivations of U.S. friends and enemies.
During the vice-presidential debate, for example, Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden arrived at the bipartisan consensus that they could read the mind of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ryan: “Let’s look at this from the view of the ayatollahs. What do they see? . . . They see President Obama in New York City the same day Bibi Netanyahu is, and instead of meeting with him goes on a daily talk show.”
Biden: “Let me tell you what the ayatollah sees. The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil.”
Likewise, in the final presidential debate, Romney and Obama both described how China, Israel, participants in Iran’s Green Revolution and the “42 allies” perceive the United States.
It is, of course, delusional to believe that policymakers sitting in Washington know how foreign leaders or protesters marching through Tehran perceive the United States. Moreover, policymakers do not even believe they possess clairvoyance: You can tell this by the fact that no policymaker ever claims to see through the eyes of friends or adversaries when that perspective runs counter to whatever argument the policymaker is trying to make.
Third, the president is directly responsible and should be held fully accountable for whatever successes or failures occur during his term in office.
After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several journalists on Oct. 15, “I take responsibility” for the Benghazi attack, moderator Candy Crowley asked Obama during the second presidential debate, “Does the buck stop with your secretary of state?” Obama replied: “ 1 / 8Clinton 3 / 8 works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.” Of course, 2.8 million executive branch federal employees also work for Obama.
In part, the mindset articulated by Crowley stems from a small sign that President Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office that read, “The BUCK STOPS here!” As historians point out, Truman was referring only to decisions that reached his desk, rather than everything that happened within his administration. (Interesting historical fact: The reverse side of his sign read “I’m from MISSOURI.” What would we think about presidential accountability if Truman had simply turned it around?)
In practice, presidents have only one significant power that they can exercise unilaterally — albeit with less and less oversight from a disinterested Congress — the use of military force. That the U.S. military’s capabilities are an awesome resource for one person to behold assuredly explains why presidents increasingly seek tactical military solutions to enduring foreign-policy challenges (see drones, targeted killings, and al Qaida). In fact, though Congress has not declared war since June 1942 against Bulgaria, over 100,000 U.S. service members have died in wars since World War II.
However, when you consider the major foreign-policy objectives of recent presidents — such as the serial promise to make America energy independent — almost none can be solved by the president alone. In reality, the president can use force, provide strategic guidance and make executive decisions that are implemented by those who serve in his administration, but he is not an action officer with a 6,000-mile-long screwdriver.