Dear Diary 

The Green Lantern Theory of Political Power

In light of the wild blooming of deranged backseat diplomacy about how US negotiations with Iran SHOULD HAVE ended up, I am reminded of a brilliant piece by Yglesias from nearly a decade ago: The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics (emphases mine -V); and as it happens, that time it was also precipitated by insane people talking about Iran.

Up at Cato Unbound you can find Reuel Marc Gerecht's latest argument for bombing Iran. I think I've covered the policy arguments on this score extensively elsewhere, so let me just note something in particular about Gerecht's essay. Like a lot of conservative writing on foreign affairs it puts a huge amount of weight on things like will, resolve, and perceptions of strength and weakness. It's a view of things that reminds me of nothing so much as the Green Lantern comics, which I enjoy a great deal but regard as a poor guide to national security policy.

As you may know, the Green Lantern Corps is a sort of interstellar peacekeeping force set up by the Guardians of Oa to maintain the peace and defend justice. It recruits members from all sorts of different species and equips them with the most powerful weapon in the universe, the power ring.

The ring is a bit goofy. Basically, it lets its bearer generate streams of green energy that can take on all kinds of shapes. The important point is that, when fully charged what the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user's combination of will and imagination. Consequently, the main criterion for becoming a Green Lantern is that you need to be a person capable of "overcoming fear" which allows you to unleash the ring's full capacities. It used to be the case that the rings wouldn't function against yellow objects, but this is now understood to be a consequence of the "Parallax fear anomaly" which, along with all the ring's other limits, can be overcome with sufficient willpower.

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them: "Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake."

I don't even know what else to say about this business. It's just a bizarre way of looking at the world. The wreakage that the Bush administration is leaving in its wake is a direct consequence of this will-o-centric view of the world and Gerecht takes it as a reason to deploy more willpower.


According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is "the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can't get something done, it's because he's not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.
The Founding Fathers were rebelling against an out-of-control monarch. So they constructed a political system with a powerful legislature and a relatively weak executive. The result is that the US President has little formal power to make Congress do anything. He can't force Congress to vote on a bill. He can't force Congress to pass a bill. And even if he vetoes a bill Congress can simply overturn his veto. So in direct confrontations with Congress and that describes much of American politics these days the president has few options.

Green Lantern theorists don't deny any of this. They just believe that there's some vague combination of public speeches and private wheedling that the president can employ to bend Congress to his will. Ron Fournier, a prominent Green Lantern theorist, offers a fairly typical prescription for presidential success:

He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find "win-win" opportunities with Republicans.

The problem with this is that the Green Lantern Theory isn't just false. It's often backwards. The basic idea is that more aggressive and consistent applications of presidential power will break down opposition. But political science research shows the truth is often just the opposite.

The Green Lantern's ring can do anything, as long as it's green and the bearer is strong-willed enough. American power can accomplish anything, domestically or globally, as long as our leaders are strong-willed enough...

This applies to both the right and the left, though in the different ways. When proggies blame Obama for getting a 'bad deal' in negotiations with congressional republicans, the same delusion obtains: Obama just has to stare at them sternly enough, state his demands in sufficiently decisive tone, and the republicans (and recalcitrant democrats) will simply bend over...

The Green Lantern theory of power is much beloved by losers who don't have to actually accomplish the expressed goals in the conditions of adversity. It's so much easier to just demand that the player sink a 3-pointer, than to do it yourself.

And of course the aforementioned aficionados of the Green Lantern theory tend to ignore the final highlighted passage -- that simply applying more pressure, more force, rattling the saber louder and clapping harder, is often liable to have the opposite effects. When dealing with human adversary, the situation very often comes to resemble the chinese finger trap: the harder you pull, the more force you apply, the more trapped you become.


Politics often requires finesse, negotiations, compromise; politics is the art of the possible, of dealing and compromise, not of unbounded force.

18:48:36 on 10/08/16 by danilche - Category: Policy


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