An expert in public policy says President-elect Donald Trump has taken the presidency’s sometimes contentious relationship with the intelligence community to new levels. But his willingness to ignore intelligence information and substitute his own judgments for those of the professionals follows a long line of presidents who have done the same.
“Trump’s bravado on social media may be unprecedented behavior for a president, but ignoring intelligence information is not,” says Patrick Roberts, an associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech, who wrote an article on the subject along with Robert P. Saldin of the University of Montana. “In many ways, presidents who ignore intelligence are like anyone who puts off doing something uncomfortable. Faced with a tough situation, kicking the can down the road is naturally appealing.”
Roberts says that historical track records show that problems ignored tend to fester and explode into wars, nuclear proliferation, political instability, and tarnished presidential legacies.
“Trump has taken public antagonism toward the intelligence community to unprecedented levels for a president-elect. Presidents have tried ignoring information that is uncomfortable or gets in the way of their goals in the past, only to see war and instability emerge when problems go unattended,” says Roberts. “As the president-elect becomes president, he risks creating a chilling atmosphere in the White House where yes-men tell him only what he wants to hear. Kicking the can down the road sometimes pays short term benefits for a president, but the costs rise, and are borne by his successors, his legacy, and the country.”
Learning from past presidents
Roberts explains that ignoring problems does not make them go away, even if things seem quiet for a time. For example, Roberts said, President Barack Obama neglected warnings that a civil war was brewing in Syria. Intervening carried major drawbacks — he had campaigned as a peace candidate looking to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East, and his intervention in Libya had, at best, mixed results. Engagement in Syria also would have meant working with a ragtag band of rebels, not all of whom were friendly to the U.S. But by letting the problem fester, the Syrian conflict exploded into a full blown civil war, initiated a refugee crisis, and opened the door for Iran and Russia to help force the rebels into retreat.
Patrick Roberts is an associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech’s National Capitol Region Campus. Roberts has a lifelong fascination with how governments manage emergencies. He’s also interested in how sometimes, when the wheels fall off, bureaucrats speak back to politicians.
For the media
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