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Having It Both Ways

March 2, 2014 Leave a comment

johnkerry

I don’t see much in the way of effective options for the US in response to Russia’s move into Crimea. Thus, I’m inclined to give Secretary of State Kerry some leeway in his efforts to address the crisis. Plus, I’ve felt a close connection to John ever since we ate dinner ten feet apart at Nantucket’s Ventuno three Septembers ago. (Last September we would eat at their very table, the best two-top in the house.)

Still, Kerry’s remarks this morning on Meet the Press were a bit much.

“It’s really 19th century behavior in the twenty-first century,” Kerry said of Putin ordering Russian military forces to move into Ukraine.

“You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests,” he said.

Uh-huh. We may have ceded the moral high ground on this one a few years back.

Categories: Language, Politics, War

Rehabilitating War Criminals

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Location:Dallas TX

We sure love our war criminal presidents, don’t we? Or at least we love rehabilitating them after they spend a few years in purgatory.

Let’s talk a bit about Nixon. The 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi were criminal enough, but have a look at this article by Bob Parry last month (hat tip, Charles Pierce), in which we learn of Nixon’s successful efforts to derail Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that could have ended the war. Moreover, Parry suggests, Nixon’s desire to hide the evidence of this lay behind the Watergate break-in of 1972.

Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.

We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.

Treason indeed. As Charles Pierce comments:

There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions.

By the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, the rehabilitation was complete. We learn in the NYT obit that at the opening of his presidential library in 1990, he was “hailed as a statesman and a peacemaker.”

And now it’s time for the opening of yet another presidential library, which served as the occasion of more rehabilitation. Last week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above) opened in Dallas on the campus of SMU. Here’s a sight to stir your heart:

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

[From the presidential library website]

Bush did more than prolong a war. He lied us into one, helped along by a host of government officials and an accommodating press. No point reviewing the familiar details. Oh, and he introduced torture as government policy, this being confirmed (if it needed confirmation) by a report two weeks ago.

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

[snip]

The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

Yet, the opening of the Bush library offered an occasion to reassess Bush and place him in a positive light, which his fellow presidents were only too happy to do.

On this day, they collectively wrapped their arms around a fellow member of the club.

“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Mr. Obama, whose first presidential campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq war, praised Mr. Bush for his bullhorn-in-the-rubble fortitude after Sept. 11 and said his predecessor fought for what he thought was best for his country. He linked his own effort to overhaul the immigration system to Mr. Bush’s.

“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Clinton, who has become close to the Bush family, offered warm words and recounted how he and Mr. Bush used to talk politics while his successor was in office. Referring to the library behind him, he joked, “Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting onstage with the other presidents and first ladies, laughed robustly.

Mr. Carter, one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq war, talked about how Mr. Bush ended war in Sudan and helped Africa. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” he told Mr. Bush.

Really? Spare me. I know it’s a complicated world and not everything is black and white. But here’s some black and white: President Bush was a war criminal and a liar.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics, War

The Face of Evil

March 20, 2013 Leave a comment

This post is a bit of a rerun, inasmuch as I already featured Tom Friedman’s famous justification for the Iraq War in a post last April. But I don’t know a better way to observe the tenth anniversary of that war’s start than to watch once again as Friedman responds to Charlie Rose’s question (astonishing in its own right), “Now that the war is over, and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”

Jump to 2:36 for the high point, albeit with some context missing.

Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society? … Well suck on this. That, Charlie, is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia, … . We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.

This is about as depraved a defense of the war as I can imagine. We need to set an example by beating the crap out of some Muslim country. Let’s not pick on our ostensible allies (though they may be the ones that actually lend support to Al-Qaeda). We’ll go after Iraq. Because we can.

A decade later, Friedman remains the dean of American political columnists and the darling of the business community, with his best-selling books and speaking fees that must be approaching $100,000.

Oh, I just did a search to see if I missed Friedman’s apology somewhere and instead found an article in the Christian Science Monitor two days ago in which Dan Murphy took a look back at Friedman’s response to Rose, complete with a transcript of the passage I’ve merely excerpted. And this too, from Atrios yesterday.

Categories: Journalism, Politics, War

The Verdict of Battle

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment

verdictbattle

James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War came out last fall. From the book’s website:

Today, war is considered a last resort for resolving disagreements. But a day of staged slaughter on the battlefield was once seen as a legitimate means of settling political disputes. James Whitman argues that pitched battle was essentially a trial with a lawful verdict. And when this contained form of battle ceased to exist, the law of victory gave way to the rule of unbridled force. The Verdict of Battle explains why the ritualized violence of the past was more effective than modern warfare in bringing carnage to an end, and why humanitarian laws that cling to a notion of war as evil have led to longer, more barbaric conflicts.

Belief that sovereigns could, by rights, wage war for profit made the eighteenth century battle’s golden age. A pitched battle was understood as a kind of legal proceeding in which both sides agreed to be bound by the result. To the victor went the spoils, including the fate of kingdoms. But with the nineteenth-century decline of monarchical legitimacy and the rise of republican sentiment, the public no longer accepted the verdict of pitched battles. Ideology rather than politics became war’s just cause. And because modern humanitarian law provided no means for declaring a victor or dispensing spoils at the end of battle, the violence of war dragged on.

The most dangerous wars, Whitman asserts in this iconoclastic tour de force, are the lawless wars we wage today to remake the world in the name of higher moral imperatives.

I might have overlooked the book if not for two posts last week by Daniel Larison in The American Conservative, along with his link to David Bell’s review in The New Republic.

In Larison’s second post, with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War’s start approaching, he ponders this passage:

Wars enter their most dangerous territory not when they lose touch with chivalry but when they aim to remake the world.

That suggests a second lesson: great risks for the law of war arise when we commit ourselves to grand campaigns in the name of good government, campaigns for regime change… .The curse of modern warfare, and of the modern law of war, is that … our wars have consistently ended up raising basic, revolutionary questions about the organization of society and the legitimacy of states. We want to go to war only when there is something foul or evil or aggressive about the regime we fight. In America in particular we want to fight only “good wars.” Most especially we want to fight good wars that begin in self-defense and end in the revolutionary cause of spreading democracy through the world. Yet “good wars” easily become bad wars. (p. 251-252)

Larison adds:

One of the problems created by this sort of thinking is that it encourages us to keep expanding what we mean by self-defense. We saw this during the Iraq war debate, when preventive war was sold to the public as a pre-emptive act of self-defense. Despite the fact that the U.S. was illegally initiating hostilities when it attacked in 2003, it was apparently very important to the administration that the war be perceived as one waged in self-defense. Of course, wishing to fight only “good wars” doesn’t necessarily mean that a government fights fewer wars. It usually means that it dresses up the wars that it does fight as if they were justified especially when they often aren’t. Explicit ideological justifications for war create another danger, which is the tendency to argue that the ends justify the means. The main problem isn’t that war supporters are insincere in their desire for democracy promotion, though they might be, but that a war with ambitious ideological goals is one that is very difficult to bring to an end and even harder to “win” in any meaningful sense.

Sounds right to me. Indeed, it sounds obvious. Unfortunately, a lot of people with power didn’t, and still don’t, agree.

Inspired by Larison, I downloaded the opening portion of the book and began reading. I’ve put it aside for now, but may return soon.

Categories: Politics, War

Mistaking Absolutism for Principle

February 7, 2013 Leave a comment

tomdrones

[Tom Tomorrow, March 2012]

Mistaking Absolutism for Principle: Killing US Citizens Without Trial

In his inaugural address two weeks ago, President Obama declared:

That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.

For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle.

Eloquent words, worthy of a historic, transformative president, which he may well be. Yet, how does he reconcile these words with the drone warfare he has championed?

As has been widely publicized this week, NBC revealed a Department of Justice White Paper on Monday that “sets forth a legal framework for considering the circumstances in which the U.S. government could use lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen.” The principal finding, as reported by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane in their NYT coverage, is that

Obama administration lawyers have asserted that it would be lawful to kill a United States citizen if “an informed, high-level official” of the government decided that the target was a ranking figure in Al Qaeda who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if his capture was not feasible.

[snip]

It adopts an elastic definition of an “imminent” threat, saying it is not necessary for a specific attack to be in process when a target is found if the target is generally engaged in terrorist activities aimed at the United States. And it asserts that courts should not play a role in reviewing or restraining such decisions.

The white paper states that “judicial enforcement of such orders would require the court to supervise inherently predictive judgments by the president and his national security advisers as to when and how to use force against a member of an enemy force against which Congress has authorized the use of force.”

No courts. Judgment left to the president. Isn’t that absolutism?

Let’s turn to David Cole, law professor, expert on legal issues of the war on terror, and far more knowledgable observer than I am, writing yesterday in the New York Review of Books:

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the paper is how it interprets the criteria of “imminence” and “feasibility of capture.” It argues correctly that, under the international legal doctrine of self-defense, lethal force is justified in response to an imminent threat of attack upon the United States. But it then defines “imminence” so broadly that it effectively eliminates the requirement altogether. There need be no showing, the paper claims, that an attack will “take place in the immediate future.” Instead, it coins what it euphemistically calls a “broader concept of imminence.” On this view, an al-Qaeda leader by definition poses an imminent threat, no matter what he is doing—because al-Qaeda is continually plotting attacks against the United States, will undertake them whenever it can do so, and we may not be aware of all such plots. In such a case, all that is required is a “window of opportunity,” not an immediate threat.

This reasoning directly contradicts the central purpose of the “imminence” requirement—to ensure that lethal force is used only as a last resort. If there is no evidence of an immediately pending attack, it is possible that some alternative way of countering the threat—in particular, by capture—may become available. And if so, then killing the suspect is neither necessary nor legal under domestic or international law. Is it any coincidence that the Obama administration has killed hundreds of suspected terrorists with drones outside Afghanistan, but captured almost none?

The white paper properly acknowledges that killing in self-defense is appropriate only where capture is not feasible. But it fails to address the central question posed by drones in this regard: Because drones permit the US to kill without risking any American life, and a capture operation will always incur some risk, does the availability of drones change the feasibility criterion? It probably should not, but it is hard to believe, again given the administration’s record of hundreds of kills and virtually no captures, that it has not.

At Esquire, Charles Pierce opened his commentary on the latest drone news with the following thoughts on war powers:

It should come as a surprise to nobody any more how quickly and how easily the institutions of a democratic republic can transform themselves under the spell of the conjuring words of the national-security state. It was the dark force implicit in self-government because self-government depended upon human beings, who are easily terrified by every rustling in the bushes and every branch against the window. It was the dark force dreaded most by the authors of the Constitution, because they knew what people were like, and they knew how deeply embedded was the need for something like a king even among the people who’d just booted one off the continent. They feared it even worse than they feared theocracy. So they did what they could to keep it in check. They lodged the war powers in the national legislature, rather than in the executive branch. They lodged the power to pay for a war in the same place, because they knew what a single national leader could do with both the public purse and an army at his disposal.

Pierce then turns to James Madison’s 1793 words:

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man; not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

President Obama, 2009 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, seems not to have taken these words to heart.

Categories: Law, Politics, War

Drones and Civilians

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment


Yesterday, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU Law School released the joint report Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan. In it, we learn, from the opening paragraphs of the Executive Summary:

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.

This narrative is false.

Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.

The summary is worth reading in full. I’ll quote one more passage.

Second, US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.

Also yesterday, President Obama spoke to the United Nations General Assembly. In the context of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi two weeks ago and the killing of four Americans, He said, “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents.”

Hmm. Obama must have interesting conversations with the fellow he sees in the mirror every day.

Categories: Politics, War

The Draft

July 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Late last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, proposed bringing back the draft.

“I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.

We’ve never done that in the United State before; we’ve never fought an extended war with an all- volunteer military. So what it means is you’ve got a very small population that you’re going to and you’re going to it over and over again. Because it’s less than one percent of the population… people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it.”

A few days ago, at the New York Review of Books blog, William Pfaff offered his reaction in a post I highly recommend. I hesitate to quote from it, as no short excerpt can accurately represent the range of Pfaff’s thoughts. Here’s just one bit, on a powerful contribution of the draft.

The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. The kids I trained with—and they were kids—were nearly all of them scheduled to become infantry replacements in what was commonly called Frozen Chosin [during the Korean War].

When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it. A man-to-man respect existed for their black contemporaries.

Pfaff goes on to discuss how Vietnam altered the nature of the draft, concluding, “What fundamentally was destroyed in Vietnam was the democratic army. The all-volunteer professional army enables undemocratic wars, ideological in nature and inspiration, and, it would seem, without real end.”

Speaking of which, it never hurts to recall Dick Cheney’s famous line, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”

Categories: Politics, Society, War

War-Mongering Romney

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

[Sorry. I couldn't find an image of Romney tearing up the Constitution.]

CBS’s Bob Schieffer had a chat with Mitt Romney, broadcast on Face the Nation yesterday. The snippet on Iran got a lot of attention today. Here is that portion’s text, emphasis mine:

SCHIEFFER: Let me turn to foreign policy. Bill Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard this week, says we are reaching the time of consequence in our dealing with Iran on nuclear weapons. He says it is time for the President to go to the Congress and say, “I want you to authorize me to be able to use military force” if that becomes necessary. And he says if the President is not willing to do that, then the Congress should do it themselves. What’s your take on that?

ROMNEY: Well, I can understand the reason for his recommendation and his concern. I think he’s recognized that this president has communicated that in some respects, well, he might even be more worried about Israel taking direct military action than he is about Iran becoming nuclear. That’s the opinion of some who watch this. And so he wants the President to take action that shows that a military Iran, that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.

And I believe it’s important for us to communicate that. I can assure you if I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I will be willing to take military action if necessary to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I don’t believe at this stage, therefore, if I’m president that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The President has that capacity now. I understand that some in the Senate for instance have written letters to the President indicating you should know that a containment strategy is unacceptable.

We cannot survive a course of action would include a nuclear Iran we must be willing to take any and all actions. All those actions must be on the table.

Scary stuff.

Of course, Romney has no beliefs. He says what he thinks will aid in his election, adding that Obama’s position is the opposite even when they agree. But really — the president is free to act militarily anywhere and any time he wants? (Not that Obama acts otherwise.) And we won’t survive if Iran gets nuclear weapons? As conservative writer Daniel Larison observed this morning,

[Romney] is telling the public plainly that he believes the United States cannot survive a containment policy directed against Iran. It is fair to conclude from this that Romney is delusional (or is pretending to be delusional) and cannot be entrusted with the responsibilities of the Presidency.

The United States survived decades of containing Soviet power. America outlasted what may have been the greatest security threat in our history partly because of a policy of containment. Iran is far weaker than any threat the USSR ever posed. If the U.S. could not survive a nuclear-armed Iran, a President Romney would be powerless to change that. On the other hand, back in the real world, if the U.S. has little to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran and is more than capable of deterring any threat from Iran, there is no reason to listen to anything Romney has to say on this subject.

Romney obviously does not believe war is a last resort, and he clearly doesn’t believe that the Congress has anything to say about attacking Iran. According to Romney, it is something that the President could do tomorrow if he believed it necessary. The Constitution is completely irrelevant to Romney, and so is the consent of the American people expressed through its representatives. No one should have any illusions about how Romney would conduct foreign policy if he is elected.

See also today’s post by Greg Sargent.

Categories: Politics, War

War and Executive Power

June 12, 2012 Leave a comment

War as a tool to consolidate executive power is an old theme. Still, I was taken by surprise by a couple of passages I read yesterday in Gordon Wood’s review of four books on the War of 1812 and James Madison in the current New York Review of Books. (One of the four, George Daughan’s 1812: The Navy’s War, is featured above.) Somehow, there’s never-ending novelty in the news that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Reviewing the historical background to the US’s declaration of war on Britain, Wood explains (emphasis mine) that

Both Democratic-Republican presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their Republican colleagues in Congress had strenuously sought to prevent any augmentation of the country’s military establishment. In January 1812 the Republicans in Congress actually voted down any increase in the size of the navy that was to fight the war they voted for six months later. The Republican Party feared military establishments and war-making because these were the means by which governments had traditionally enhanced executive power at the expense of liberty. Indeed, the Republicans seemed to believe that America’s military posed a greater threat to the United States than it did to Great Britain. Armies and navies, declared John Taylor of Caroline, the conscience of the Republican Party, “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.” Even a strong navy, warned a Republican congressman from Philadelphia, might become “a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.”

Later in the review, Wood analyzes President Madison’s war record, concluding (emphasis mine again):

The burning of Washington and other defeats, the many misjudgments, the poor appointments, and the bureaucratic snafus all reveal that the War of 1812 was not Madison’s finest hour. He may have been at times a very successful practical politician, but he was not a decider. He was a legislator, not a natural executive; he was someone who sought to persuade, not command. Believing devoutly in republican principles, he was ill at ease in exercising executive authority. He was, as Henry Clay privately admitted, “wholly unfit for the storms of war.”

But in one important respect President Madison redeemed himself. Throughout all the administrative confusion, throughout all the military failures, throughout all the treasonous actions of the Federalists, Madison remained calm in the conviction that in a republic strong executive leadership—the leadership of a Napoleon or a Hamilton—could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought. Unlike the Federalists who during the Quasi-War with France in 1798 had passed the harsh Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress the opposition, President Madison, as one admirer noted, had withstood both a powerful foreign enemy and widespread domestic opposition “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.” No subsequent American president has ever been able to constrain the growth of executive power in wartime as much as he did.

Of course, it helps if the president actually has an interest in constraining the growth of executive power. We know Bush didn’t, and now we know that Obama doesn’t. I won’t go on about that again. I’ll just quote the opening from this piece put out yesterday by PrivacySOS.org:

Let’s go back to school for a minute. Remember learning that the United States had three separate branches of government and a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful?

Congress could make laws; the president could veto them and propose other laws; Congress could override the president’s veto, control the purse strings and had the sole power to declare war while the president served as commander-in-chief; members of the Supreme Court – nominated by the president and approved by the Senate — could declare a law unconstitutional.

This fragmentation of power was seen at the time the Constitution was drafted as the best way to guard against tyranny and protect liberty.

It’s worth pondering what is left of this system in the post 9/11 world where President Obama has embraced and further enlarged the radical assertion of executive authority handed to him by the Bush Administration.

Has there been any serious attempt by Congress to check rapidly expanding presidential power? No. However bent the Republicans might be on denying President Obama any domestic accomplishments, Congress has largely closed ranks behind a “let the executive branch do it” national security agenda.

Categories: History, Law, War

Righteousness and Goodness

June 10, 2012 1 comment

[Mr. Fish cartoon at clowncrack.com]

I know, I’ve been pushing this drone theme a lot lately (here and here and here). Maybe I should move on. But really. We have a president who insists it’s okay to shoot missiles at people in countries we’re not at war with just because they’re hanging out in the wrong places. It’s even okay to shoot missiles at people in countries we’re not at war with who are US teenagers with no known history of doing anything wrong. That seems worth calling attention to again and again and again.

Mind you, our use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen is still a government secret, even as Obama administration officials talk about it when doing so suits their purpose of projecting an image of resolve and success in the war against al-Qaeda.

Today we find Representative Peter King (from Long Island, and head of the House’s Committee on Homeland Security), in an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, explaining that “I can’t officially acknowledge that we have a drone program.” Yet, he goes on to justify their use:

I wish we could all live in a world where we could hold hands and love each other. The fact is, that’s not reality. We have an enemy that wants to kill us. I live in New York. I lost over 150 constituents on 9/11, and if we can save the next 150 by killing al Qaeda terrorists with drones then kill them.

We have to assume that there’s always going to be an increase in weapons. This has been the history of mankind. That’s why we have to make sure our defense budget is not weakened and that we stay ahead of the enemy.

There’s evil people in the world. Drones aren’t evil, people are evil. We are a force of good and we are using those drones to carry out the policy of righteousness and goodness.

What has it come to when one of the most extreme right-wing, Muslim-hating members of Congress so strongly supports Obama’s undeclared drone war? What would King — an ardent supporter of the IRA — have said if the UK used drones a few years back in Belfast neighborhoods where IRA provisionals were known to congregate?

There’s something to be said for democratic processes and the constitution. I prefer the rule of law to a president empowered, in the name of righteousness and goodness, to judge who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Categories: Law, Politics, War
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