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.”
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, American statecraft at its best had been informed by a judicious realism, perhaps best exemplified by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War throughout World War II. By 1945 that realist tradition had just about played itself out. Just three weeks after V-J Day, Stimson left Washington for the last time. Forrestal, Stimson’s naval counterpart, stayed on, stoking his fevered inclinations. Not long thereafter, the War Department itself–within which war as such had typically figured as an afterthought–gave way to a new Department of Defense. Along with the CIA, DoD became the principal instrument for waging semiwar, its actual purpose having little to do with defense per se and everything to do with projecting US military power around the world.
That Harry Truman should have appointed Forrestal the first Secretary of Defense seems only fitting; that the job then broke Forrestal–in 1949 he suffered a nervous collapse and committed suicide–might have been seen as a portent, a cosmic repudiation of Forrestal’s grand endeavor. Members of the new national security elite chose to see Forrestal’s demise in a different light: He had lacked the requisite toughness. So the Pentagon hung Forrestal’s portrait in the hallway, named an aircraft carrier in his honor and promptly forgot him.
What destroyed Forrestal was his inability to control the generals and admirals who ran the US military. To his considerable chagrin, Truman found himself encountering similar frustrations. As a practical matter, it turned out that the Commander in Chief enjoyed only a limited capacity to command.
Already in the late 1940s, the apparatus created within the executive branch to assist the President in conducting semiwar manifested a will of its own. Presidents could set events in motion–without bothering to secure Congressional authorization, Truman committed US forces to Korea in 1950 and later that year made the fateful decision to send them north of the 38th Parallel–but having done so, writes Geoffrey Perret, he was “no more the master of his fate than a leaf tumbling down the street in the wind.” This point forms a central theme of Perret’s Commander in Chief: Semiwarriors evince great confidence in their ability to manage events; when they miscalculate, the President is left holding the bag and the American people are left to foot the bill.
Despite his no-nonsense, take-no-guff, buck-stops-here manner, Truman was as much a creature of the imperial presidency as its directing officer. The Most Powerful Man in the World exercised only limited control over the national security apparatus that provided the ostensible foundation of his authority. Others set the tune to which the man in the Oval Office danced. In Presidential Power, Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg quote Clark Clifford, a key Truman aide, to explain how the process worked: Clifford and other members of the White House staff would arrive at “some understanding among ourselves on what direction we would like to see the president take on any given issue.” Having reached their decision, Truman’s nominal subordinates would “quietly and unobtrusively…try to steer the president in that direction.”
In short, as the atmosphere of semiwar took hold in the later 1940s, the formulation of national security policy became less democratic, but it did not become less political. It’s just that politics became an insider’s game, shielded from public scrutiny; henceforth, the politicking that counted occurred within the presidency behind closed doors. Keeping the Joint Chiefs on board became more important than gaining the assent of Congress. Maintaining a consensus among the various entities represented on the National Security Council took precedence over attending to what was once called the common good.
The events of 9/11 endowed semiwar with a new lease on life. That the crisis touched off by the events of September 11, 2001, will continue in perpetuity has become an article of faith. Politicians now talk of peace the way cynical preachers speak of the Second Coming: Paying homage to the idea remains an obligation, but only rubes take such stuff seriously. No credible presidential candidate in either party has dared to question the wisdom or necessity of waging the Global War on Terror. Like the poor, apparently, the GWOT–or, as some style it, “The Long War”–promises to be with us always.
In Unchecked and Unbalanced, Frederick Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Huq tabulate the chilling byproducts of this sort of groupthink. Among the most egregious: Justice Department memos justifying torture; the blizzard of “signing statements” in which President Bush claims the prerogative of selectively disregarding the law; domestic surveillance implemented on a scale without precedent; the open-ended imprisonment of “detainees”–including American citizens–without charge; and a program of “extraordinary rendition” that secretly delivers suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign intelligence services for interrogation.
Schwarz and Huq are especially good at describing the exertions by the Bush Administration to cloak these actions with a tissue of legality. Richard Nixon once declared, “If the President orders it, that makes it legal.” The lawyers in the Bush Justice Department, with John Yoo, formerly of the Office of Legal Counsel, playing a leading role, expanded on the Nixon Doctrine. The resulting Yoo Doctrine goes something like this: If the President wants to order it, creative lawyering can contrive an argument that empowers him to do so.
In Presidential Power, Crenson and Ginsberg point out that the problem is not so much Presidents seizing power as having it handed to them. As Americans increasingly embrace a minimalist definition of citizenship, their ability to influence government policy diminishes. With its “weak political parties, its partially demobilized electorate, and its citizens transformed into mere ‘customers’ of government,” they write, contemporary America “is made to order for presidentialism.” In this regard, the transformation of the relationship between the US military and the American people since Vietnam has proved crucial.
Credit the original insight to Nixon during Vietnam’s latter stages: reliance on citizen-soldiers can impose constraints when it comes to using force; an Army made up of professionals–a military detached from society–could well enhance presidential freedom of action. Nixon’s creation of a so-called all-volunteer force met with the enthusiastic approval of Americans eager to shed any responsibility for contributing to the nation’s defense–especially if that responsibility carried with it the prospect of being shipped to some God-forsaken outpost in Southeast Asia.
Without anyone taking much notice, Americans forfeited ownership of their Army. The armed forces became the property of the Commander in Chief, to be used as he sees fit–a proposition that has long since received tacit Congressional endorsement. In practice, when it comes to climbing aboard the bandwagon bound for war, few members of Congress will risk being left behind. As a consequence, write Crenson and Ginsberg, “America’s military ventures abroad now rely on a relatively small and insulated force” of regulars “whose deployment and casualties produce barely a ripple on Main Street.”
This might be tolerable if presidentialism yielded effective policy. But it doesn’t. The overall performance of semiwarriors since the rise of the national security state qualifies at best as mixed. Since 9/11 it has been nothing short of disastrous. Perret’s Commander in Chief offers an angry but highly readable account of how Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and George W. Bush in Iraq repeated the blunders committed by Harry Truman in Korea. Perret portrays each of these conflicts as unnecessary and unwinnable. Each case featured a set of advisers keen to demonstrate their masculinity by sending American soldiers off to fight. In each instance a President out of his depth and ill equipped to exercise independent judgment did as his advisers urged, with tragic results.
When it comes to exposing the defects of US policy since September 2001, Stephen Holmes’s book The Matador’s Cape, a collection of previously published essays (some of which originally appeared in these pages), is especially devastating. Even many Republican stalwarts now acknowledge that when it comes to sustained ineptitude, the Bush Administration takes the blue ribbon. Holmes goes further, exposing the profound irrationality and the acute narcissism informing the Administration’s response to 9/11.
There is a great irony here. The semiwarriors surrounding Bush had spent the Clinton years carping about the absence of strategic coherence. Their own moment having arrived, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and company embarked on a reckless course so fraught with contradictions as to make Bill Clinton appear the very model of a prudent statesman. “The fate of the country,” writes Holmes, “was abandoned to the personal eccentricities, obsessions, compulsions, and tunnel vision of a handful of political operatives.” Chief among those personal eccentricities was a disdain for history. Pre-eminent among the obsessions was a devout faith in the efficacy of military power. Looming large among the compulsions was an itch to have another go at Saddam Hussein–not because he was strong and posed a danger but because he was weak and represented an opportunity. According to Holmes, “the Administration viewed Iraq less as a threat than as a showcase. The purpose of unleashing American firepower in Iraq was not so much to take out a cruel but puny dictator but rather to advertise the folly of defying the United States.”
The Big Lie propagated by the architects of the Iraq War is not that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction nor that he was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden; it is that they possessed a secret formula for keeping America safe, the essential ingredient in that formula being a mandate to engage in open-ended war. Although the semiwarriors advising Bush fancied that they had discovered something original, they were really peddling the same elixir concocted by James Forrestal some six decades ago. Having drunk deeply of that elixir, President Bush is now left holding the bag, with others–chiefly young soldiers and their families–picking up the tab.
Will the errors and excesses of the Bush Administration spell the demise of the imperial presidency? Don’t count on it.
Democrats bemoan the failures of the Bush Administration, and with good cause. Yet none of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of checks and balances. In this regard, the views of Republicans and Democrats align precisely. The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them.
In Washington and in national politics more generally, the Schlesinger Rule remains sacrosanct. Named in honor of the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and on-again, off-again enthusiast of presidential activism, the rule goes like this: When the other party does it, it’s an abuse of power; when my own party does it, it’s dynamic leadership.
The press plays the role of enabler. Having had a field day recording President Bush’s triumphal procession from one spectacular blunder to the next–with Iraq, Katrina and now Walter Reed vying for top honors–reporters can’t be bothered to assess the implications of these gaffes. They are already turning to the next Big Story: handicapping the imperial succession. Is it Hillary’s turn? Will Obama’s allure last? Can McCain and Giuliani sell themselves to the Christian right? For as long as members of the media can recall, the presidency has been the biggest story in town; they have a vested interested in preserving it.
But in their contempt for politicians and journalists, Americans should not be too quick to let themselves off the hook. Any serious effort to reduce the presidency to its pre-imperial proportions would imply rethinking the premises of US foreign policy, based on self-aggrandizing assumptions about American wisdom, competence and prerogatives and about the capacity of others to manage their own affairs. Given our chronic inability–or is it unwillingness?–to see the world as it is and to see ourselves as we really are, such a reassessment seems exceedingly unlikely. In an age of the citizen as consumer-spectator, Americans care enough to complain, but not nearly enough to act. Long live the emperor.