Bush’s Wartime Dictatorship

by , December 22, 2005

In defending his edict authorizing surveillance of phone calls and e-mails originating in the United States, President Bush reiterated legal arguments, long made by his intellectual Praetorians, that imbue the White House with wartime powers no different from those exercised by a Roman emperor. As Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer pointed out in the Washington Post the other day:

"Bush’s constitutional argument, in the eyes of some legal scholars and previous White House advisers, relies on extraordinary claims of presidential war-making power. Bush said yesterday that the lawfulness of his directives was affirmed by the attorney general and White House counsel, a list that omitted the legislative and judicial branches of government. On occasion the Bush administration has explicitly rejected the authority of courts and Congress to impose boundaries on the power of the commander in chief, describing the president’s war-making powers in legal briefs as ‘plenary’ – a term defined as ‘full,’ ‘complete,’ and ‘absolute.’"

The new presidential absolutism infuses not only Bush’s foreign policy, which asserts the "right" of the White House to make war on anyone, anywhere, anytime, and for any reason, but also, increasingly, his domestic policies. The doctrine of wartime presidential supremacy has been dramatized, in recent days, in a series of disturbing developments on the home front: the utilization of "national security letters" by the FBI to snoop on thousands of U.S. citizens, the creation of a permanent database that amounts to an electronic "enemies list," and just this past week the revelation that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails originating in the U.S. – without going to the FISA court that normally oversees such activities.

This doctrine of presidential supremacy is derived, in substance and style, from the unrestrained militarism of the regime. That we are now in a state of permanent war requires that our government undertake a perpetual war on what is left of our civil liberties. Given the nature of this conflict with a formless, stateless enemy, more a concept than a combatant, there is no longer any division between the "home front" and the struggle against the worldwide Islamist insurgency, between domestic and foreign policy. We spy on Americans because we fight in Iraq, and, as time goes on, the converse will be true: we will continue the overseas battle in order for the regime to win the fight against its political opponents in the U.S. That the antiwar opposition, already demonized by neoconservative ideologues as "appeasers" and worse, will wind up being treated as "the enemy" should surprise no one.

Of course, the regime isn’t locking up its domestic opponents and "renditioning" them off to some godforsaken gulag quite yet. However, it is more and more treating opposition to its policies – or even discussion of its methods – as the equivalent of treason, and this story about how, in response to the NSA revelations, the president summoned the executive editor and the publisher of the New York Times to the Oval Office merely underscores how far we have gone in that direction. The president went out of his way to denounce the Times piece as "a shameful act," and this overbearing style is part and parcel of the developing tyranny. Lew Rockwell has posited the rise of what he calls "red-state fascism," as have I, and we can see, from recent events, that this phenomenon is quickly congealing from a fluid potentiality into a hard reality. All the elements of a new American fascism are in place: a regime that recognizes no restraints on its power, either moral or constitutional; the rise of a leader cult surrounding the president; and a foreign policy of relentless aggression. And make no mistake: it is this latter that makes all the rest of it possible.

Without the pretext of a wartime emergency, the neoconservative ideologues who seek to reconcile constitutional "originalism" with a legal and political doctrine of presidential hegemony that would have horrified the Founders would be relegated to the margins and considered harmless crackpots. Today, however, the crackpots are not only in power, they are going on the offensive – with much success.

Just how much success is evidenced by the complete inability and unwillingness of the Democrats to stand up against this systematic assault on our liberties at the most crucial point: that is, at the time it was initiated. This is underscored by the fact that Sen. Jay Rockefeller is coming out in public against the NSA eavesdropping only now that it is politically popular to do so. When it really counted, however, those few congressional Democrats who were let in on the secret unauthorized wiretaps, such as Rockefeller and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said nothing. In the summer of 2003, Rockefeller wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney that, while expressing "concerns" about bypassing the FISA court, he refused to pass judgment: "As you know," he wrote, "I am neither a technician or an attorney," and he therefore felt "unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse" the NSA intercepts.

Could a wimpier "opposition" even be imagined? Rockefeller held this secret close to his chest for years, as did Pelosi. These Weimar Democrats are gutless wonders, fully complicit in the regime’s assault on our liberties and the constitutional order. To anyone looking to the Democratic Party as the locus of an effective opposition to red-state fascism, I would strongly suggest that they are setting themselves up for a severe disappointment – and that they’d best look elsewhere.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I apologize for the brevity of this column, but I’m still in Malaysia, for reasons I’ll go into later on this week. Suffice to say that the time difference has imposed certain difficulties, but I’m hoping to be home soon and back on my regular schedule.

 

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