May 22, 2009
In a February, 2004 interview with Tim Russert, George Bush provoked much derision by proudly declaring himself to be what he called a "war president." This week, Newsweek's Editor Jon Meacham interviewed Barack Obama, adopted Bush's label and applied it to Obama, asking him:
Can anything get you ready to be a war president?
Nothing excites our media stars more than saluting and fetishizing the President as a "War President" and "Commander-in-Chief" (David Broder today, in his column entitled "Obama in Command": Obama is "continuing, with minor modifications, the policies and practices of his Republican predecessor . . . . Obama's liberal critics are right. He is a different man now. He has learned what it means to be commander in chief"). But isn't the phrase "war president" a complete redundancy when it comes to the U.S.? Which American presidents were not "war presidents"?
Bill Clinton presided over his war in the Balkans and various bombing campaigns in Iraq ("Operation Desert Fox"), Afghanistan and the Sudan; Bush 41 had his war -- the glorious Desert Storm -- against Iraq, which followed his intrepid invasion of Panama; Reagan conducted his various secret wars in Central America and got his direct war glory by invading Grenada and by bombing Libya (heroically taking out the infant of that country's leader); Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all "war presidents" in Southeast Asia; Truman and Eisenhower both presided over the Korean War and the Cold War. I suppose Jimmy Carter may be one of the very few Presidents to whom the label may not apply, since our military involvement during his four post-Vietnam years was of the indirect kind, though even Carter presided over the attempted military rescue of American hostages in Iran and the peak of the Cold War. And I've omitted far more American military actions from this list than I included.
In any event, the U.S. is, more or less, a nation permanently at war. One can debate whether all or some of our wars are good or not, but what can't be debated is that we fight wars far, far more than any other country -- basically, continuously. That's just a fact. After Bush 41's invasion of Panama, R.W. Apple wrote on the front page of The New York Times that the invasion "constituted a Presidential initiation rite" whereby:
For better or for worse, most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood to protect or advance what they construe as the national interest.
In other words, there's no such thing as an American President who is not a "war President." We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents." We don't really have any other kind. To vest a specific power in a President on the ground that he's a "War President" is to vest that power in presidents generally and permanently.
That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and, coming soon under the Change banner, allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading. It implies that "America at war" is some sort of unusual and temporary circumstance rather than what it is: our permanent state of affairs. In perfect Orwellian fashion, our allies can easily become our enemies (Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Mujahideen precursors to Al Qaeda) and our enemies can just as easily become our allies (Iraqi Sunnis, Gadaffi), but what never changes is our status as a war-fighting nation.
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The decree that a President is a special kind of leader -- a "War President" -- is so pernicious because that becomes the rationale for justifying whatever he wants to do. During the Bush years, one of the most widely held beliefs among progressives and Bush critics -- and, prior to that, among Americans generally -- was the principle that people should be treated and punished by the government as "guilty" only once they have actually been proven to be so in a fair judicial proceeding, not assumed to be guilty based on unproven accusations by political leaders. Yet our entire debate over presidential powers and Guantanamo is now -- still -- premised on the opposite assumption: that the people who Obama wants to keep imprisoned in Guantanamo and elsewhere are Evil and Dangerous Terrorists -- the Worst of the Worst. There's no need for that to be proven in a court for it to be assumed. He's asserted it to be so, and therefore it is, and because we're a country "at war," that's all that is needed.
Since early 2002, the American government has repeated over and over and over that the only people at Guantanamo are Terrorists, the Worst of the Worst, both superhuman and sub-human animals. One U.S. military official famously said that Guantanamo detainees are "people who would chew through a hydraulic cable to bring a C-17 down." This was all assumed to be true without any need for it to be proven -- the War President, the Commander-in-Chief, decreed it to be so, and thus it was so.
Yet over the years, we've released hundreds of them -- the Worst of the Worst -- because it turned out they were guilty of absolutely nothing. After the Supreme Court, in June of 2008, ruled unconstitutional the U.S. Congress' denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees, federal courts that finally reviewed their cases began ruling that there is no credible to support the accusations against many of them. Yet still, most political and media elites -- in both political parties and across the political spectrum -- continue simply to assume that they are Terrorists. Think about what it says about someone who, even in the face of all the evidence of these continuous, false accusations, wants to vest the President with the power to keep people in cages indefinitely without having to prove their guilt, or is willing to simply assume that people we lock up are, by definition, Terrorists.
It doesn't matter how often the Government's accusations about detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere are proven to be lies. It's just mindlessly accepted that whoever the President calls a "Terrorist" is one, and that anyone we are imprisoning with no trial must be deeply guilty of being both Evil and Dangerous. Here's how Brian Williams began his NBC News broadcast last night:
The American people have been told for years that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba--Gitmo--is where they house the worst of the worst of those rounded up on the battlefields of this nation's dual wars. Most Americans don't walk around every day, every moment thinking of what conditions are like inside there, but President Obama has decided it must be shut down and those inside must be moved.
In fact, many of them were detained nowhere near "battlefields" -- but rather in their homes or off the street -- but since we're a Nation at War, the Battlefield is everywhere.
Chris Matthews yesterday said that "we [are] gonna have to face the fact that these guys are terrorists, they're going to have to be somewhere, it might as well be Gitmo," and then suggested that we just execute them to get rid of the problem (he wanted to know "why are we being so dainty about it" -- meaning worrying about whether we first prove their guilt before killing them). That was after Saxby Chambliss told Matthews: "We know that the ones left at Guantanamo are the meanest, nastiest killers in the world. They get up everyday thinking about ways to harm Americans." No need for a trial -- we should just take their word for it.
This is what being a "nation at war" and viewing the President as a "War President" --- first and foremost the "Commander-in-Chief" -- does to a country. Fear predominates everything. No government power needs to be limited. Blind faith is placed in presidential judgments, the assessments of the War President go unquestioned. Being in the military means following orders, so when all citizens start viewing the President in military terms -- he's "our" Commander-in-Chief -- that mentality of obedience is the natural by-product.
Most of the people at Guantanamo have now been kept in cages for seven years by the U.S. without any charges or trials of any kind -- based solely on the President's say-so -- and very few people seem particularly bothered by that. It's not really hard to understand why political establishments prefer this state of affairs to be permanent, and why Presidents are so eager to claim the mantle of "War President." What political leaders wouldn't be eager to receive the blind faith and virtually unlimited powers that the title entails?
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Obama is speaking today at 10:10 a.m. EST on these matters. If there's something worthwhile to say, I"ll create a separate post as he's speaking.
UPDATE: James Madison, Political Observations, 1795:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.... No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
At least based on what they said, they considered "war Presidents" and "Commander-in-Chief" to be a lamentable, temporary and rare necessity, not an exciting and permanent state of affairs.