Kevin Drum makes a good point here about presidential war powers. There is general agreement (accept maybe among hard-core libertarians) that in times of war and extreme emergency, presidents can take on expanded powers, Ã la Lincoln and FDR.
But the next question is, what is war? “War powers” have always been considered extraordinary, to be used only in case of emergency. But if you count “hot wars,” the U.S. has been at war for about 20 of the past 65 years. And if you count the Cold War, then we’ve been at war for 50 of the past 65 years. If we consider ourselves to be in a state of war nearly all the time, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. If we assume the president is allowed expanded powers for 50 out of 65 years, the checks and balances of the Constitution are effectively nullified.
Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There’s “wartime” and then there’s “wartime,” and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers. George Bush may have the best intentions in the world â€” and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world â€” but that still doesn’t mean he has the kind of plenary power Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised during their wars.
During a genuine emergency, the president’s powers are at their most expansive. The rest of the time they’re more restricted, whether he considers himself a wartime president or not. Right now, if George Bush needs or wants greater authority than he currently has, he should ask Congress to give it to him â€” after all, they approve black programs all the time and are fully capable of holding closed hearings to debate sensitive national security issues. It’s worth remembering that “regulation of the land and naval forces” is a power the constitution gives to Congress, and both Congress and the president ought to start taking that a little more seriously.
We need to be clear about whether global terrorism is an extraordinary threat that can be defeated, or whether it’s part of a new phase of human history in which war is not between nations but between sects. I strongly suspect the latter is true, and that the threat of global terrorism will hang over civilizations for generations. Even if the Islamic jihadists were to surrender their fight in our lifetime — highly unlikely, IMO — the world is full of other groups with different agendas who might very well resort to the same tactics.
Horrible though they were, “declared” wars like World Wars I and II had a certain clarity to them. The wars had a sharply defined beginning and end –e.g., the World War I cease fire on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Everybody understood who their enemies were. Soldiers wore uniforms and were (supposed to) operate within certain rules.
But the “war on terror” is so hazily defined that Americans disagree among themselves what it is, or exactly who our enemies are. Regarding Iraq (which may or may not be part of the war on terror, depending on who’s talking), the President only recently acknowledged that the people we are fighting aren’t all “terrorists,” even though he doesn’t seem to be able to get the word “insurgency” out of his mouth. Yet others tell us the al Qaeda affiliates make up less than 10 percent of the people we are fighting in Iraq.
I think the Iraq War is less about fighting al Qaeda, or reshaping the Middle East, or even oil, than it is about the Right’s collective emotional need for a conventional enemy. Iraq is a proxy war standing in for the old-fashioned “glorious little war” the righties desire. But glorious little wars no longer apply to geopolitical reality. Although certainly military actions will be part of the effort to combat terrorism, talk of “fronts” — as in “central front of the war on terror” — seems to me as anachronistic as mounted saber charges.
And the righties seem to think we are in a state of emergency, and have been continually since 9/11. If you’ve ever worked for someone who can’t set priorities, you may know what I’m talking about — when everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority. And when we’re always in a state of emergency, we’re never in a state of emergency. As a nation we need to take a deep breath and understand that we’ve got a lot of long, hard, and mostly not glorious work ahead of us to face the challenge of global terrorism. But we’ve got to understand this is how the world is going to be for the foreseeable future, probably the rest of our lives. And that means fighting terrorism is not an “emergency.” It’s the norm. And all constitutional restrictions apply.