The Imperial Presidency

The Imperial Presidency


The August 26 speech by Vice President Dick Cheney at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville has made at least two things clear: first, that the Bush Administration is fully committed to launching a war against Iraq with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein, regardless of UN efforts to insert weapons inspectors; and second, that the Administration will brook no dissent on this matter from Congress or senior figures in the Republican Party. “At bottom,” Cheney declared, those who favor caution and delay in removing Saddam are advocating a dangerous path “that could have devastating consequences for many countries, including our own.”

The intolerance of dissent expressed by Cheney is symptomatic of the assumption of imperial warmaking powers by George W. Bush and his coterie of close advisers. Bush himself acknowledged this trend in his response to a number of senior Republican leaders–including noted conservatives like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker as well as US special Mideast envoy, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni–who have expressed qualms about his plans. “I am aware that some very intelligent people are expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq,” he told reporters at his Texas ranch on August 16. “I listen very carefully to what they have to say. But America needs to know, I’ll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country plus our friends and allies.”

There have, of course, been occasions when a sitting President has assumed warmaking powers with little regard for the views of Congress or the general public. US forces were already involved in Vietnam when Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and George Bush Senior acquiesced in a two-day Senate debate on US intervention in the Persian Gulf only after 550,000 US troops had been deployed on the perimeter of Kuwait. Even so, George W. Bush has surpassed his predecessors in the assumption of imperial powers–most conspicuously, perhaps, in his tendency to conflate America’s war against terrorism with his own existential destiny. “I will not forget this wound to our country,” he told the nation shortly after September 11. “I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” In assuming this pivotal role, moreover, Bush has made it clear that he will allow no bounds on his exercise of national power.

From this, it’s a short step to other manifestations of imperial decision-making, such as the August 26 opinion by White House lawyers that Bush does not require Congressional approval for an attack on Iraq. Supposedly, the 1991 resolution secured by the elder Bush for Operation Desert Storm is sufficient. “We don’t want to be in the legal position of asking Congress to authorize the use of force when the President already has that full authority,” a senior White House official told the Washington Post.

The assumption of imperial powers is also reflected in the President’s tendency to mislead the public: He has repeatedly declared that he has not yet decided whether to use force in removing Saddam and that he is prepared to entertain nonmilitary options, but this flies in the face of growing evidence of a substantial buildup of US forces in the areas surrounding Iraq and the reports of frantic efforts by the Defense Department to produce a winning strategy for the assault on Baghdad (doubters are encouraged to compare the January and June 2002 satellite photos of the new US military air base in Qatar posted at

And then there’s the President’s obvious disdain for the views of our long-term allies, who argue for putting UN inspectors into Iraq before anything else. This by no means exhaustive catalogue should trouble all Americans who believe in the democratic process and the preservation of constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. American freedom and democracy cannot coexist with an imperial presidency.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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