Powers and Presidents

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, à 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.

Kevin writes,

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 — and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world — 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 — 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.

18 thoughts on “Powers and Presidents

  1. We are not legally at war because Congress has not declared war period. Therefore the unwritten ( in any constitution or law)leap to complete tyranny of commander in chief is BOGUS. not mention it is ridiculous even during real war- we usually regret whatever was done in hysteria.
    Congress’ reserves the power to make rules for captures on land and water.. and for government and regulation of land and naval forces. The president does not have this power. Drum makes clear there is no case law granting this. We are not in a state of dire emergency- osama’s uboats are not landing.
    The resignaton of Judge Robertson makes it clear unlawful means to get info in order to get warrants was in operation. Bush needs an enemy to justify dictatorship- congress and the courts have to stand against the executive or we are done for. How do we get them to it?

  2. The nature of war has gradually changed over time (saw a terrific PBS special on this many years ago, back when PBS was terrific).

    War between nation-states evolved from mainly being waged between armies, to being Total, involving entire populations. In WW2, for example, people at home were building bombers that later rained indiscriminate destruction on entire cities in Europe and Japan. Had the continental US been closer to Europe, you can bet that our bomber factories would have been prime targets.

    As military technology evolves over time, it empowers different social organizations. For example, about 500 years ago the invention of the cannon favored a concentration of power, which enabled the rise of the modern nation state. Only a King could afford cannons, thus subduing the armies of smaller competitors, ie warlords. This balance has held pretty much until recently, finding expression in ever more expensive items such as battleships, ICBMs and stealth fighters, which only a large nation state could afford.

    In recent times, technology has shifted, to empower decentralized, smaller organizations, ie sects and terrorists, which is the main reason why they have appeared and grown strong. The hatreds and rivalries were always there, it’s just that formerly, technology enabled a strong central state to keep the lid on the rabble.

    Reflect that, as a civilian, you have more power than any medieval king ever had, and more importantly, you have more of this power today than you did 50 years ago. Could a king send their voice around the world, for example. Today you can do this from your cellphone, whereas years ago, you were tethered to copper wire.

    And so, with cellphones and box cutters and flight training, terrorists managed to sucker the mightiest nation on earth into a collossal quagmire. It’s been said that bin Laden could never have pulled this off with the technology of 25 years ago. Other examples: a shoulder held missile launcher can take down a 747. A small vial of anthrax can wipe out a whole city. A suitcase nuke can… you get the idea. All because of the advance of technology, making a whole lot of power available cheaply. The situation is the antithesis of the invention of the cannon.

    As I see it, it is both the right’s emotional need for an enemy they can define, however poorly and ill-matched with reality, but also a visceral recognition that the technological/power equation has changed, which frightens them. Terrorists are like a plague of deadly insects that have suddenly appeared and that won’t likely go away, until the technological/power equation changes again, or until we decide we’re serious about draining the swamp, instead of trying to fight them in outdated ways, fighting an effect and not the root cause..

    On the one hand, we do need to “stand down” from emergency procedures, since this plague is going to be here for awhile, but on the other hand normalcy is not likely to return anytime soon, as you point out.

    I think that the right really wants to drain the swamp, getting to the root causes of terrorism, but they want to do it on their terms. They see bringing democracy to the world, which in their worldview means making the world safe for American corporations, as the answer to terrorism, as the draining of the swamp. They’ve wanted to do this all along, and they seized on 9/11 as the perfect event, “the new Pearl Harbor” to launch this initiative. The bolder righties understood that this is a long term deal, Cheney or Perle said it would take 50 years, and then presto, “our children will be dancing in the streets”.

    In essence, confronted with a shift in the technological/power equation that threatens their power, they don’t want to give anything up. They want to solve the problem of terrorism but only on their terms. They want to not only remain dominant in the world – which terrorism challenges – but to increase their domination of others.

  3. People, People, People…

    (‘Specially you, Maha)…

    You give these clowns far too much credit…With all your big-picture painting…

    What’s at the heart of the efforts of these Mayberry Machiavelli’s and Tank-Town Torquemada’s is always the same thing…They’re out to steal all they can…

    If we should ever get to the bottom of WHY they turned their NSA cyber-microscopes on the American Public, we’ll find that some well-connected “contractor” sold them the technology they’re using…At the sort of triple-platinum-plated prices only the Pentagon has the resources to pay…

    Just another example of the same old shit…

    During the entire post-Lincoln history of the Republican Party, holding public office hsa been synonymous with having a “license to steal”…

    Nothing new here…

  4. Maha,

    I agree with Mavel…this is nothing but greed. The US now owns the best super secret wire tapping software in the world and bush claims they are listening to terrorists. Terrorists use cell phones and email???? Really…I think not. AQ/Osama all they just need a body and a target.

    War on Terror is just another taking point…like Victory…it has no definition…just words..a slogan. The War on Terror goes away only when its no longer funded by our tax dollars or the chinese refuse to lend bush any more money.

  5. probably they are data mining and selling the info to the corporations while fattening the party coffers

  6. this is nothing but greed.

    That explains the motivation of Halliburton and the Bushies themselves, but it doesn’t explain why so many people who aren’t going to make a dime from any of this are willing to support it.

    In other words, it only explains half the transaction — it explains why the Bushies are selling this shit, but it doesn’t explain why your average rank-and-file rightie is buying this shit. And that, sirs, is what is keeping the Bushies in power.

  7. Rank and file righties support the bs out of fear. They really are cowards (chicken hawks). All those red, orange, red terror alerts, the arrests and trial of those muslins who trained with Osama, all the lies told about Padilla, and lets not forget the unsolved anthrax in an envelope thing. These cowards have consistently supported everything bush has done or said. Their support has kept them and their children out of harms way. What do you think would happen if bush asked for volunteers to fight the war on terror???

  8. but it doesn’t explain why your average rank-and-file rightie is buying this shit.

    They buy it because it’s the path of least resistance. Why tax your mind trying to grapple with complex issues that offer no equitable solutions(reality), when you can just surrender your obligations to think for yourself? It’s the sheep to the shepard relationship thing…you don’t have to know the why, you just have to be obedient and trust the shepard. How else could it be possible to find satisfaction in an explanation of terrorism that sums it all up with.”.they’re evil and they hate us because of our freedoms.”Bush’s description and definition of terrorism has been intentionally relegated to the spiritual dimension and he has purposely portrayed himself as the sole interpreter of that dimension. Bush is a bag of shit and a liar!

    On another note…I hear the courts put the kabosh on Bush’s little ploy to get the Jose Padilla monkey of his back. Now what do we do? I guess we can just let the next president deal with that one,huh.

  9. Awright Maha…

    For your punishment/enlightenment, you can go talk to a few of those “average run-of-the-mill righties”…

    And then report back to us…

    The reason the buy this shit is because they were born stupid and get continuously more stupid as they age…

  10. Tom P. — I was well aware of the provenance of the phrase, and used it deliberately for that reason. It’s also been applied to Vietnam and similar misadventures.

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