by Rick Bell
simply a matter of outrageous spending or enlarged government
programs--both offenses of which this administration is guilty, as
manifested in a 25 percent domestic discretionary spending hike, a
half-trillion-dollar Medicare expansion, and the ripping away of
free-market agricultural reforms enacted over the past decade. The
president continues to pursue tax cuts, as any conservative president
would. But a government that cuts taxes and continues to spend ultimately
becomes as amoral as one that raises taxes and spends.
Yet the Bush administration's free-spending fiscal record only hints at
its larger rejection of conservative principles. The more fundamental
betrayal arises from the administration's central focus: an ill-defined
"war on terror" that has no determinable endpoint and that is used to
justify an unprecedented expansion of executive power. To make matters
worse, this administration shows little inclination to demand
accountability from those who serve within it. In turn, the Republican
Congress--ignoring its 1994 vow to "restore the bonds of trust between the
people and their elected representatives"--appears disinclined to check
the powers of the executive. Together, these factors endanger the
long-term health of the republic.
It is a good thing Bush has an idealistic streak that informs his vision
of the world. That idealism leads him to a belief that "freedom is not
America's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God's gift to each
man and woman in this world." But, without demanding accountability from
his administration, that messianic zeal is being corrupted, and his
policies are lurching out of control. Without a defined, limited overall
vision of the war on terrorism and a corresponding commitment to
government accountability, Bush can hardly claim to be the champion of
Speaking about the war on terrorism as the GOP convention kicked off, Bush
told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, "I don't think you can win it. But I
think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are
less acceptable in parts of the world." The White House immediately
backpedaled from Bush's apparent gaffe, saying this was just a variation
of what the president has always said--that the war on terrorism is a
"different kind of war." But, as a former editor of this magazine, Michael
Kinsley, once stated, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." And
that's just what Bush was doing.
The past four decades have seen "wars" on social conditions ("poverty"),
inanimate objects ("drugs"), and physical states ("teenage pregnancy").
(Each has met with limited, if any, success.) What is different now is
that, this time, a president has asserted that we are in an actual war
that must be fought with the full wartime powers of the presidency. With
vague congressional approval, this assertion grants the president--and,
more importantly, the presidency--powers deeply disturbing from a civil
liberties perspective. Indeed, this expansion of presidential prerogative
is anathema to the conservative belief in limited government.
The dangers of this new, unlimited power were plain to see at a tough
congressional hearing in June. Attorney General John Ashcroft squared off
against the Senate Judiciary Committee as it looked into whether
Ashcroft's office provided legal cover to the Department of Defense on
issues involving torture. The Wall Street Journal and other papers ran
stories based on a heavily redacted 100-page memo, dated March 6, 2003.
Written by a Defense Department working group, the memo seemed to outline
ways to justify the use of aggressive interrogation techniques on
detainees at Guantanamo without running afoul of international treaties
forbidding torture. The Journal reported:
"In order to respect the president's inherent constitutional authority to
manage a military campaign ... (the prohibition against torture) must be
construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his
commander-in-chief authority," the report asserted. ...
To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo
advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing"
that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is
"inherent in the president."
In essence, the authors of the Defense Department memo were arguing that,
in wartime, getting around inconvenient laws is "inherent in the
president." The memo's existence raised the possibility that the abuses at
Abu Ghraib were, in fact, an extension of official policy.
At the hearing, Ashcroft denied that President Bush approved of torture.
But, in refusing Democratic senators' demands to turn either the full memo
or similar ones written by the Justice Department over to the Judiciary
Committee, he said, "We are at war. And for us to begin to discuss all the
legal ramifications of the war is not in our best interest and it has
never been in times of war." Ashcroft was essentially asserting that
Congress--whose oversight powers give it authority to demand
accountability from the executive--should not be allowed to inquire about
the quality of legal advice being given to the president. This, even
though the apparent result of that advice "trickled down" to the abuse of
prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
If the answer to every legitimate congressional inquiry concerning
presidential powers is that "we are at war" and that legislative questions
concerning executive behavior are inappropriate, it becomes impossible for
Congress to fulfill its constitutional mandate as a co-equal branch of
government. At what point do the American people ask the obvious: What
sort of war is this and exactly how long should a president have virtually
indeterminate powers to wage it?
Yes, it is true that past presidents have taken on extraordinary wartime
powers: In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; in
World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the internment of Japanese
citizens. But, in both cases, there existed a defined foe. With each,
there was a sense of what victory meant and over whom that victory would
be won. The Union would defeat the Confederacy; America and her allies
would defeat the Axis powers. Even in the cold war, the ideology of
communism had a clear home in the Soviet Union. Those conflicts would end
with the defined enemy surrendering, being defeated, or the motivating
ideology collapsing. However long it took, the American people knew there
would be some sort of definite conclusion.
But, in President Bush's vision, the terrorist enemy remains amorphous.
After September 11, Osama bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive." Then, as
the Iraq war developed, Saddam Hussein became the ace of spades in the
terrorist card deck. Now, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi is the new face of evil.
The war, we are told, will not end with any one of these men's capture or
death. It will continue until ... until ... until when, exactly? Thus, the
comparisons many make to previous U.S. conflicts are hardly applicable.
Neither are the comparisons to decisions of previous commanders-in-chief
who put aside civil liberties. For the 40 years of the cold war, the
United States held off a Soviet enemy that had the power to destroy the
country several times over--yet civil liberties were never curtailed to
the extent they are now. In the current struggle, which some call World
War IV, Americans are being asked to sacrifice liberties in the face of an
enemy that has less ability to damage us than the Soviets did. This is not
to minimize the threat of Islamist fundamentalism, but it is essential to
put the capabilities of the enemy in perspective.
The Supreme Court gave some shape to these questions in a series of
rulings on the rights of Guantanamo detainees and American "enemy
combatants" Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. What is broadly at stake could
be seen in the vociferous end-of-the-spectrum minority statements by
regular antagonists Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia. Scalia
found the detention of Hamdi, captured in Afghanistan, unconstitutional,
but disagreed with how the Court chose to resolve it--i.e., by saying that
the September 13, 2001, congressional war resolution gave Bush the power
to declare individuals enemy combatants. Scalia asserts that the
Constitution provides only two options--either Congress could vote to
suspend habeas corpus or Hamdi could be charged with a crime, such as
treason. Otherwise, Hamdi couldn't be held indefinitely. "The very core of
liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been
freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive,"
On Padilla, the court declined to hear the case on a
technicality--Padilla's lawyer sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in
federal court, rather than the warden of the Louisiana jail in which
Padilla was held. Stevens (who, in a man-bites-dog moment, also signed
onto Scalia's dissent in the Hamdi case) railed against the Court decision
not to hear the case:
At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free
society.... Access to counsel for the purpose of protecting the citizen
from official mistakes and mistreatment is the hallmark of due process.
Executive detention of subversive citizens ... may sometimes be justified
to prevent persons from launching or becoming missiles of destruction. It
may not, however, be justified by the naked interest in using unlawful
procedures to extract information. Incommunicado detention for months on
end is such a procedure.... For if this Nation is to remain true to the
ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even
to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.
It is cold comfort that the furthest left and the furthest right justices
on the Court are the ones arguing most vigorously about the dangers of an
unchecked executive. But neither they nor any of their colleagues appear
interested in pondering the hard questions of an American president with
extra-constitutional "wartime" powers that could continue ad infinitum.
Would these powers be automatically transferred to a hypothetical
President John Kerry? President Hillary Rodham Clinton? President Jeb
Bush? Should the American people simply take on faith the latest
commander-in-chief's definition of who is or is not a terrorist? Would the
American people have accepted such a refined status quo for the 40 years
the cold war lasted? Or, in the formulation of adviser Karl Rove, the 30
years of Great Britain's conflict with the Irish Republican Army? (Even in
that conflict, bargaining partners eventually emerged to craft an unsteady
peace agreement, whereas Rove has dismissed the idea of ever signing a
peace treaty with Al Qaeda.) How can the American people expect to stay on
a war footing when the commander-in-chief has given them no concept of
what "victory" would eventually look like? And how can they be expected
indefinitely to tolerate an expansion of executive power that threatens
the liberties upon which the nation was founded?
Permanent war would be dangerous enough if the public could be confident
in its execution. But we cannot. That's because President Bush has failed
to live up to the second key tenet of conservative government:
Take, for example, the Pentagon's disastrous planning for postwar Iraq.
The lack of troops for the post-invasion period enabled the insurgency to
bloom and put American soldiers at risk. Worse, while memos from
Ashcroft's Justice Department seemingly provided legal cover for the abuse
at Abu Ghraib, the material causes could be found, again, in the
underdeployment of troops: "What went wrong at Abu Ghraib prison?" asked
The New York Post's Ralph Peters, one of the more earnest supporters of
invading Iraq. Pointing to the two independent reports examining the
scandal, he concludes: "Woefully deficient planning for post-war Iraq, too
few troops and inadequate leadership at the top." Peters is among the
conservatives who believe the Abu Ghraib fiasco should have been the final
straw for Rumsfeld.
But it didn't happen. And it won't happen, because accountability is a
foreign word in this administration. To demonstrate how little he has
learned, Rumsfeld observed, "Does [the abuse] rank up there with chopping
off someone's head on television? It doesn't. It doesn't. Was it done as a
matter of policy? No." Forget that the abuse was far more pervasive than
just the handful of servicemen that first popped up in photographs; when
the secretary of defense basically says, "Hey, what the terrorists do is
much worse," the moral foundation upon which America stands begins to
crumble. The president's stated goal was to try to bring democracy to the
Middle East--not to allow us to become tainted by the barbarism so
prevalent in the region we are attempting to liberate. So Rumsfeld stays
on--even as the situation rapidly deteriorates.
Then again, this shouldn't come as a surprise: George Tenet remained in
his position following the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history,
enabling him to tell the president later that evidence of weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk." The first failure helped lead to
the deaths of thousands of Americans; the second failure led us into a
conflict from which there exists no clear exit strategy and that has
rendered the word of the United States suspect. Yet Tenet stayed on, too.
And no wonder. As Bob Woodward writes in Plan of Attack, "[S]everal things
were clear from the president's demeanor, his style and all that [Colin]
Powell had learned about Bush. The president was not going to toss anyone
over the side.... The president also made it clear that no one was to jump
ship.... They were a team. The larger message was clear: Circle the
wagons." The larger message is that loyalty is prized above all,
regardless of the results and regardless of the effect on U.S. standing in
The same pattern is evident in the other WMD scandal, a.k.a. the Wretched
Medicare Debacle. As is well-known now, the prescription-drug-enhanced
Medicare "reform" will cost a full quarter more--at least--than the
originally announced $395 billion over ten years. Within weeks of the
president's signing the bill into law, the measure ballooned to $534
billion. The re-estimation contributes to a record annual deficit for
2004. The Post reported that the larger numbers were known for "months"
and that "the president's top health advisers gathered such evidence and
shared it with select lawmakers"--while rank-and-file members of Congress
were kept in the dark.
The deception on the numbers was combined with raw, hard politics that
danced right up to the ethical and legal lines that supposedly govern the
House. The legislation--the largest entitlement expansion in nearly 40
years--just squeaked by. Republican leaders in the House of
Representatives kept the vote open for an unprecedented three hours in
order to twist the arms of reluctant conservatives. Retiring Michigan
Representative Nick Smith alleged that Republicans threatened the
political future of his son if he didn't support the bill. Smith held his
ground, despite the de facto extortion--actions that sparked an internal
House inquiry that has resulted in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay having
his hand slapped by the Ethics Committee for improperly trying to
influence Smith's vote.
Ultimately, on both foreign and domestic policy, the public's trust has
been betrayed. Why should the public trust its leaders with future policy
if those leaders deceive and manipulate the people's elected
representatives to get a favored policy passed? If the American public and
the world at large now react skeptically to future presidential claims
that the United States faces a foreign threat, who can blame them?
Similarly, the president's intent to reform Social Security will now be
judged by the still-emerging costs of the Medicare reform--to say nothing
of the political backlash from some seniors incensed at having to pay 17
percent more in premiums. The mishandling of domestic spending, of which
Medicare is the prime example--whether because of ignorance, incompetence,
or deceit--casts the same pall over Bush's domestic agenda that the
collapse of Iraq does over his foreign policy. The president who dismisses
criticism of the cost of Medicare is the same one who "miscalculated" the
costs for rebuilding Iraq by at least $100 billion--and submitted a
subsequent budget that omitted even an estimate of spending for the
current military campaigns. Medicare actuary Richard Foster was threatened
with firing if he told the truth about the costs of the reform bill, while
his boss who pushed forward the lower numbers, Thomas Scully, departed
quietly to a cushy health care-related policy job at a Washington, D.C.,
law firm. That was, of course, the same pattern we witnessed with the
management of the Iraq war. Individuals who got the prewar details
right--either in terms of troop strength (General Eric Shinseki) or in
estimated fiscal costs (former National Economic Council Director Lawrence
Lindsey)--were publicly rebuked or dismissed. Those who got the prewar
details wrong remain in positions of authority. Conservatives--who fear
unchecked, unaccountable government--should be especially appalled.
It would be wonderful to believe the president's promise that the war in
Iraq will lead to democracy in a troubled region. An immigrant--I was born
in the West Indies--tends to absorb the earnest, spiritual myths of his
adopted nation even more than those native-born. Democracy is indeed a
human value. But initiating a war to "liberate" an entire region far from
our shores can hardly be called a conservative cause. It will be
impossible to restrain a government kept on a permanent war footing. And,
in liberty's name abroad, liberty at home will inevitably be compromised.
It already has been.
No, a Kerry administration would not be any conservative's ideal. But, on
limited government, a Democratic president would, arguably, force a
Republican Congress to act like a Republican Congress. The last such
combination produced some form of fiscal sanity. And, when it comes to
accountability, one could hardly do worse. Of course, a conservative can
still cast a libertarian vote on principle.
At crucial points before and after the Iraq war, Bush's middle managers
have failed him, and the "brand" called America has suffered in the world
market. In any other corporate structure plagued by this level of
incompetence, the CEO would have a choice: Fire his middle managers or be
held personally accountable by his shareholders. Because of his own
misguided sense of "loyalty," Bush won't dismiss anyone. That leaves the
country's shareholders little choice.