"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just
so long as I'm the dictator."
President Bush can't be blamed entirely for the
old American republic's rush to empire (that process has been going on for many
years), only for its accelerated, almost drunken, course toward that goal. And
obviously, Bush is only a pale imitation of the Roman emperors who believed
themselves to be divine; he only believes
himself to be in direct communication with the Almighty.
So the issue is bigger than Bush. With military
bases in 130 countries, it has become necessary for America's commander
in chief to match the ambitions of a state aspiring toward full-spectrum
dominance – and the unprecedented control
of earth and space.
In granting himself an ever expanding series of powers based on the alleged
right to interpret the Constitution however he sees fit, Bush is well on the
way to assuming the imperial throne. He has become a greater danger to the presidency
as an institution than was even Richard Nixon. But at least Tricky Dick
gave up eventually; Bush and his advisers have no plans for that. They are prepared
to get away with as much as
they can – to take it all the way – and so test the limits of the possible.
This is, of course, perfectly fitting for an administration that believes it
up its own reality as it goes along, without concern for that "goddamned
piece of paper" or anything else.
A Dizzying Proliferation of Powers
Here is a short recap of the president's more
Through his legal yes-men, Bush declared his presidential right to
declare war without congressional approval. He declared his presidential
right to conduct
clandestine wiretapping of American citizens. He declared his presidential
silence whistleblowers, even when their revelations would help
improve national security. At the same time, Bush has declared the presidential
right to ignore
restrictions on torture and authorize its use, at his pleasure. And he has
declared the presidential right to not
disclose potential abuses of police powers arising from the PATRIOT
Act, itself a legally
And – the real stunner – Bush also declared that when
a president discloses classified information, by
virtue of his very personage it is automatically, almost transcendentally,
Hail Caesar indeed!
How has he done all this? While Bush is (probably)
not about to go so far as to rename
the days of the weeks and months, as did Turkmen President
Saparmurat Niyazov, it's because he can slip his laws past quietly through
"signing statements," the presidential privilege to revise completed
legislation in private, in cases where a public veto would require sending them
back to Congress. Bush has, during his tenure so far, issued signing statements
on 750 laws – and vetoed zero. He has thus revised over twice as many laws as
did his father and Bill Clinton combined, while becoming the first president
since Thomas Jefferson, over 200 years ago, to not veto a single bill.
According to the Boston
Globe, "Bush's assertions have gone far beyond that of any previous
president in U.S. history. Bush has applied his signing statements to more than
750 new statutes. His numbers are by far a record for any U.S. president, [legal]
This clever tactic is designed to bring minimum attention to White House sabotaging
of bills the president doesn't like, while also keeping him free of accountability.
As Alternet explained,
"while a presidential veto would require Congress to weigh in, and change
the law if it appeared to be unconstitutional, those 750 signing statements
are an effective way of influencing future legislation without facing any oversight."
If criticism of Bush seems to be peaking now,
it's only because it's been late in coming – and because 2006 congressional
elections are looming on the horizon. The Cato Institute recently issued a well-publicized
report, and more lawmakers have started
to weigh in. "We're a government of laws, not men," quipped Senate
Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "It is not for George W. Bush to disregard
the Constitution and decide that he is above the law." Pennsylvania Republican
Sen. Arlen Specter charged that "institutionally, the presidency is walking
all over Congress." And Massachusetts veteran Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy
charged the Bush administration with "undermining the checks and balances
that 'guard against abuses of power by any single branch of government.'"
Alas, where was this circumspection when 99
of 100 senators voted for the PATRIOT Act in 2001? And why was it fine with
Democrats for Bill Clinton to bypass Congress in authorizing war against Yugoslavia
two years earlier, but not now when Republican Bush claims the same right? After
all, Kennedy blames Bush's excesses partly on "a compliant Republican Congress."
Lamentably, it seems that blinkered partisanship has also contributed to the
corruption of the presidency as an institution.
Indeed, as Carl
Bernstein recently wrote,
"[T]he roadblock to a serious inquiry [of administration deception]
to date has been a Republican majority that fears the results, and a Democratic
minority more interested in retribution and grandstanding than the national
There is, however, some small glimmer of hope in Sen. Specter's
recent vow to conduct an oversight hearing in June on Bush's imperial power
grab. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee attacked the president's
"very blatant encroachment" on congressional authority, stating, "[T]here
is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority [regarding
presidential signing statements]. … What's the point of having a statute if
… the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?"
The senator will "call administration officials to explain and defend
the president's claims of authority, as well as invite constitutional scholars
to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power."
Judiciary Committee member Russ Feingold of Wisconsin – the only senator to
vote against the PATRIOT Act – also backs the endeavor.
Sen. Specter is trying now to sound the alarm among his peers. "[W]e're
undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on
one side and the judicial branch on the other," he said in the above article.
"There may as well soon not be a Congress. … And I think that most members
don't understand what's happening."
The Solution: Renounce Empire Once and for All
Will lawmakers learn their lesson? Back in 1999,
noting the depressing partisan dynamic at work in the congressional furor over
Kosovo, the LA
Times prophetically surmised then that "the next 'collateral damage'
caused by the bombing campaign may be to the laws and Constitution of the United
If the recurring tendency of presidents to interpret their rights to control
war and peace, among other things, is to be stopped, now and forever, Congress
must agree that there is law, and there are limits to presidential excesses
– and that these should apply to all presidents, not just the ones elected by
the opposing party.
Unless the other branches of government get their acts together, it won't just
be Congress that gets "walked all over," as Sen. Specter put it. Echoing
him, Alternet perceives that "without a push back from the other branches
of government, the path is paved for future presidents, regardless of their
politics, to single-handedly interpret the Constitution any way they see fit."
It is exceedingly rare to expect any leader enjoying arbitrarily expanded powers
to relinquish them voluntarily. Bush is no exception. He has proved to be the
most aggressive, most reckless, and most corrupted of modern American presidents
in his desire to take more and more power for himself; in so doing, the temporary
resident of the Oval Office might well make it much harder for future
Congresses to control future presidents.
But really, the problem here, upon which everything else rests, is America's
imperial passion. So long as America persists in its crazed delusions of empire,
it will need an emperor – and probably, with each election will elevate one
more crazed and deluded than his predecessor. Now, George W. Bush thinks he
just talks to God; yet should America acquire the power to
control the weather and zap whole countries from
outer space, what president could resist mistaking himself for God?
And so, as long as the temptations and trappings of empire remain, there will
be little incentive for any future president to undo the damage done by relinquishing
the powers President Bush has so forcefully asserted. Indeed, as George
F. Will noted in a trenchant recent critique, "perhaps no future president
will ask for such congressional involvement in the gravest decision government
makes – going to war. Why would future presidents ask, if the present administration
successfully asserts its current doctrine?"
Despite what narrow-minded Bush-bashers might think, changing the president
alone will not solve the problem. Unless the country's leaders desist from empire-building
and return to the republic – and so that more
humble foreign policy then-candidate Bush promised six long years ago –
America will continue
the imperial slide, going the way of all empires before it, perhaps even
before the completion of that imperial
palace now being erected in the sands of ancient Babylon.