In books, essays and op-eds, complaints about presidential power run amok have once again become legion–with the still-unfolding saga of the Gonzales Eight the most recent, if hardly the most egregious, example. These complaints derive from a common source: the perceived excesses of the Bush Administration, perpetrated under the pretext of prosecuting the Global War on Terror. Yet as a close reading of the books considered here makes plain, “unchecked and unbalanced” presidential power is itself not the problem but merely its outward manifestation. The imperial presidency is not the disease; it is a symptom. To imagine that getting rid of Bush will cure what ails the body politic is akin to assuming that excising a tumor will alone suffice to cure cancer.
The real affliction is more insidious. For want of a better label, call it “semiwar,” a term coined after World War II by James Forrestal to promote permanent quasi mobilization as the essential response to permanent global crisis. A man who saw demons everywhere, Forrestal was convinced that he alone grasped the danger they posed to the United States.
Forrestal was also a zealot, the prototype for a whole line of national security ideologues stretching across six decades from Dean Acheson to Donald Rumsfeld, from Paul Nitze to Paul Wolfowitz. Geoffrey Perret’s acerbic description of Acheson applies to them all: His “mind turned to the apocalyptic as easily, if not as often, as other men’s thoughts turn toward money or sex.” For semiwarriors, time is always short. The need for action is always urgent. The penalty for hesitation always promises to be dire.
From Forrestal’s day to the present, semiwarriors have viewed democratic politics as problematic. Debate means delay. To engage in give-and-take or compromise is to forfeit clarity and suggests a lack of conviction. The effective management of national security requires specialized knowledge, a capacity for clear-eyed analysis and above all an unflinching willingness to make decisions, whatever the cost. With the advent of semiwar, therefore, national security policy became the preserve of experts, few in number, almost always unelected, habitually operating in secret, persuading themselves that to exclude the public from such matters was to serve the public interest. After all, the people had no demonstrable “need to know.” In a time of perpetual crisis, the anointed role of the citizen was to be pliant, deferential and afraid.
For Forrestal and other members of the emergent national security elite, fired by the need to confront a never-ending array of looming threats, the presidency served as an accommodating host. Semiwarriors built the imperial presidency. On behalf of the chief executive–increasingly referred to as the Commander in Chief–they claimed new prerogatives. They created new institutions that became centers of extra-constitutional power: the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the various agencies that make up the intelligence “community.” When out of office, they inhabited think tanks, consulted, lobbied and generally raked in the dough, all the while positioning themselves for a return to power.
They also imprinted on the capital city a new style, one that emphasized perils without precedent, activism on a global scale and a preference for hard power. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt became President, the District of Columbia was merely a seat of government and the United States was still a republic. When FDR’s successor left office twenty years later, Washington fancied itself the center of the universe, with the United States now the self-anointed Leader of the Free World. As Cullen Murphy observes in Are We Rome?, a mordantly funny essay filled with arresting observations, this transformation of status fostered large delusions: “that the world is small, that society is malleable, and that the capital’s stance is paramount.” To reside in the imperial city was to believe that “assertions of will can trump assessments of reality: the world is the way we say it is.”