I started out to write a letter to the editor, and (you know me!) went on way too long. But here’s a first draft, submitted for your correction and comments. I’ll do a podcast version and maybe tidy it up and whittle it down for the newspaper letter editors later this afternoon.

As I write this, Congress is debating the President’s proposed troop escalation. And pundits are debating whether attempting to stop escalation is politically smart. But there are larger issues here than politics or even the war itself. The debate over escalation in Iraq is also a debate over the integrity of our Constitution and the system of government that has sustained this nation for 218 years.

Even a sloppy reading of American history should tell us that the Founding Fathers never intended one man, even one with a title so lofty as Commander-in-Chief, to have the power to deploy the military any way he wants for as long as he wants at his own discretion.

History had provided many examples of one man with control of an army seizing dictatorial powers. For this reason, the authors of the Constitution divided authority over war and the military between Congress and the President. Consider that an early draft of Section 8 gave Congress the authority “to make war,” not just to declare war. The change was made to allow the President some leeway to act quickly without congressional debate when enemy troops are landing on our shores. It was not intended to strip Congress of all but a ceremonial role in approving the President’s war plans.

Most of the authors of the Constitution were loathe even to maintain a standing army. For that reason, the Founding Fathers decided to keep only a minimal federal force and primarily rely on state militias for the nation’s defense (Article I, Section 8, clauses 15 and 16). The militias were to be under the command of the several state governors until called into federal service (with a governor’s permission) by Congress and the President, which further divided control of the military between the state and federal governments.

The original militia system proved inadequate for the nation’s defense, and in the 20th century the state militias became today’s National Guard. But the National Guard was never intended to be the President’s personal plaything, and the citizen soldiers of the Guard cannot – must not — be kept in a foreign war merely at the President’s pleasure.

It was not until the Cold War that the United States chose to maintain a formidable federal military at all times, war or no. Our military might requires more, not less, vigilance that the nation’s war powers not fall into the hands of just one man.

President George W. Bush has embraced a controversial theory called the “unitary executive” to justify his increasingly autocratic powers. In issues from warrantless surveillance to stripping a citizen of the right of habeas corpus at his discretion, President Bush has pushed the powers of the presidency far beyond what any President has assumed before. And this includes wartime presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

President Bush justifies these powers by evoking the threat of terrorism. I was in lower Manhattan on September 11, and I have seen the worst that terrorism can do with my own eyes. I know that terrorism destroys precious lives, landmarks, and vital infrastructure.

But terrorists cannot destroy the United States. Terrorists cannot occupy our territory and force us to abandon our political institutions to despotism. Only we can do that.

Today many television and newspaper pundits warn our senators and representatives that trying to stop the escalation is politically risky. Why stopping the unpopular acts of an unpopular President should be politically risky isn’t clear to me, but we are told it is. Today the men and women we elected to represent us struggle to find the courage to enact the will of We, the People. Instead, they tiptoe about in fear of the White House and will not use the power the Constitution gives them. The system of checks and balances has withered away, and a single secretive, autocratic man who has shown us little else but bumbling incompetence and moral cowardice for the past six years rules the nation like Caesar. How did we come to this?

I ask our senators and congresspersons to please look beyond their personal ambitions and whatever heat they might take from the President’s apologists. Instead, please think of the nation. Think of the soldiers whose lives are forfeit to President Bush’s stubborn refusal to face reality. And think of preserving the Constitution and the integrity of the separation of powers for generations to come.

16 thoughts on “Manisfesto

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  2. Hmm, it’s over 700 words, most papers have a 200 word limit. I would cut out the history stuff and concentrate on the high points:

    * We are seeing an unprecedented concentration and abuse of power by Bush. Congress is abdicating its constitutional duty to hold him accountable.

    * “But terrorists cannot destroy the United States. Terrorists cannot occupy our territory and force us to abandon our political institutions to despotism. Only we can do that.” – Whatever you do, keep this in. It cannot be stressed enough.

    * This is not a partisan issue – it’s not politics as usual – it’s about reining in an out-of-control autocrat who is destroying this country (as well as Iraq, and Iran if we let him)

    Hope this is useful feedback.

  3. Thank you, Ray. That sounds like a plan.

    I’m thinking now about adding some stuff about the War Powers Act and the October 2002 war resolution for the final blog version and podcast, but you’re right that I’ve got to seriously chop it down to submit as a letter.

  4. Six days after Bush v Gore was excreted from SCOTUS, W uttered this -ism:

    “I am mindful of the difference between the executive branch and the legislative branch. I assured all four of these leaders that I know the difference, and that difference is they pass the laws and I execute them.”

    Now all kidding aside, I think that appealing to the personal ambitions of congressional members is also in order. Twenty one Republican Senators are up for reelection in ’08. From Lamar Alexander to John Warner they’d like to still be in their present position after W. Though Cochran, Cornyn, Enzi, Inhofe and Stevens are in that bunch, there is a well spring of rational thought amongst the others, hopefully leading to a dovetailing of personal, institutional and national self interest.

    As to how we got here, Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent,

    “In sum, the Court’s conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.

    I dissent”.

    If “preserving the Constitution and the integrity of the separation of powers” is the point you want to make, some mention of that quiet third branch needs to be brought into your rhetoric.

    If you really just want to focus on the war powers act and legislative oversight, then state that. I like your writing because you go where you say your going.

  5. If you really just want to focus on the war powers act and legislative oversight, then state that. I like your writing because you go where you say your going.

    That’s where I’ll be going in the extended (podcast) version, which I’m writing now. The judicial branch could be brought into this narrative at several points, but I can’t see going into that level of detail in less than 3,000 words, which is way more than anybody is going to read, or listen to, as the case may be..

  6. Maha-

    That’s one of the most beautiful and concide Op-Ed’s I’ve read in a LONG time. This should be published as an Op-Ed column, not a Letter to Editor. It’s that good. The points you are making can not be shortened to a couple hundred words. Consider also submitting this to Truthout, Common Dreams, Op-Ed News, etc on the web.

    Reading this I had an alternate strategy idea for the congress, too. Maybe they should consider passing a law that National Guard can ONLY be used on US soil as a domestic militia, NEVER sent to foreign lands. This would force them to be withdrawn from Iraq and force a draft if the Decider In Chief decides to continue this insanity. A draft would, of course end this whole mess.

  7. Randy — thank you. I’m about finished with the podcast script, which will be a little more detailed, then I’ll go about spreading this version around.

    I agree with you that we need to have some kind of spelled-out restrictions on how the Guard can be used. National Guard have been used in foreign wars, like World War II, and I’m not sure I’d eliminate sending the to foreign war entirely. I might stipulate that if a war is not declared there must be strict time limits on how long a unit can be deployed, or how many tours of duty any one individual can do.

  8. A few comments:

    The “unitary executive” is a new concept of the neo-cons and Cheneyites that in effect puts gives to all the components of the Executive Department the same privileges of the President. For example, a secret service agent or Army colonel, being part of a ‘unitary executive’ can claim executive privilege if called to explain his or her actions before Congress.

    Under the ‘unitary executive’ doctrine the President is above the law. Bush is the first president ever to claim the laws do not apply to him as witnessed by his many signing statements to that effect. If he is above the law, so also are the members of the ‘unitary executive’ who cannot be prosecuted for their acts in the same manner that the president cannot be prosecuted.

    I suggest that that unless this doctrine is repudiated by Congress then if not Bush, then some other president, with these powers may turn the presidency into a dictatorship. Couple these powers with the increasing powers of corporate America and you have situations similar to Italy and Germany in the 1920s.

    Is this hyperbole? I think not. Who would ever think that the US would undermine the doctrine of habeas corpus or advocate secret prisons, extra-territorial renditions, and torture.

    How does all this come together? You have to go back to pre-WWII and see the slow development in our military might since that time. WWII rightly justified the creation of a draft and the massive build up of our armed forces. The Cold War allowed us to continue this culminating in our venture in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was lost because the country turned against it. (If we let the Executive have its will, we would probably still be there.)

    The country was motivated to turn against it for two reasons: first, the draft affected almost every family in America so the war was felt by all; and, there was a strong movement of moneyed left wing pacifists, the descendents of the pre-WWII Communist families, in academia who knew how to effectively lead the fight against that war by riling up the students.

    In order to insure that not happen again and that future wars would be fought willy-nilly at the whim of the president, the leaders of our country took away one of the two prongs by doing away with the draft and starting a standing volunteer army. Like in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when mercenary troops were used, a country could then war without affecting the general population. This new army is more and more alienated from the general population because it is peopled with less than 1% of the population mainly from the inner cities and rural areas along with the professional officer class. (Presidents Washington and Jefferson would be appalled at us having a standing army since they knew it would lead to stupid wars. If you have a large army, there is a need to use it. As they say, use it or lose it.)
    However, the other prong remained. But during this war many in the Peace Movement were startled to find their fellow travelers become strangely silent if not actually pro-war. The left wing professors have fallen silent. The moneyed activists have locked their pocket books. For this war, the anti-war people have taken a walk and probably will never be able to regroup again.

    This leaves no effective force or money to fight against the war in Iraq, or for that matter, any war that may come about. With no opposition other than the so-called ‘public opinion’ the president has a free hand. Add to that the calls for an increase in our armed forces; the vast sums being funneled into homeland security against a specter enemy, the diminution of our rights, and a president not bound by any laws then you have a new type of aggressive America. With Bush, hopefully it will not get any worse than what we now see. But it is with a new president with these powers that we will have to contend one day and we will probably be reduced to the claiming as our only virtue the idea that the ‘trains run on schedule.’

  9. Nice Job, Maha… I agree with Ray Dobson about trimming the historical background (althought it is essential) to condense your letter. Trust your readers to possess that knowledge, and if they don’t already understand the historical context from which your message is based, they won’t become enlightened in a few extra paragraphs.
    I was moved by the idea that what we’re talking about is greater than war on terror and all its components that have whittled away at our democracy and our freedoms. I would suggest that the endorsement and acceptance of torture into our national character should be highlighted in your message to illustrate the depths to which our nation has sank. On a personal level, state sanctioned torture separates me from my love of America. I am ashamed for that action that Bush has found acceptable.

  10. Beautifully written, Maha. And I agree that your piece should be an op-ed column rather than a letter to the editor, because I would hate to see you cut it. You have pulled the threads together into a powerful whole.

  11. Citing Caesar is a mistake. Caesar was a highly educated man who made his own way politically, was acclaimed as an exceptionally good writer, conquered Gaul in a series of well-executed campaigns that revealed an extraordinarily high degree of military competence, was a canny and often conciliatory politician, and was loved and admired by his military staff and soldiers, in part for his personal bravery and willingness to share his soldiers’ discomforts.

    Yes, Caesar had at least one of his vanquished enemies ritually strangled in public, but that was entirely normal in the context of a victorious Roman general’s triumph. Entirely pragmatic, Caesar adjusted his military tactics and treatment of prisoners to fit the occasion and was widely known for his clemency.

    Caesar was not the first Roman dictator and his rise to power was in most respects very different from W’s. Comparing the two makes little sense in the context of your essay.

  12. Chris — I understand what you are saying, but evoking the word “caesar” has long been literary shorthand for a republican ruler seizing the powers of a dictator. It’s not a usage I just made up to fit Shrub.

  13. Maha,

    Fair enough. But you might consider using lower case to indicate the general rather than the specific.

    The more relevant case, I would submit, is Hitler. But that would be counterproductive. And it’s been done.

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