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Weekly Standard: Bush has "near dictatorial power"

Salon | April 12, 2007
Glenn Greenwald

The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb participated in a conference call with former Senator George Mitchell yesterday, during which Mitchell advocated a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. This is what Goldfarb wrote about that call:

Pam Hess, the UPI reporter who gave us this extremely moving and persuasive glimpse of the liberal case for the war in Iraq, asked if timetables for withdrawal "somehow infringe on the president's powers as commander in chief?" Mitchell's less than persuasive answer: "Congress is a coequal branch of government...the framers did not want to have one branch in charge of the government."

True enough, but they sought an energetic executive with near dictatorial power in pursuing foreign policy and war. So no, the Constitution does not put Congress on an equal footing with the executive in matters of national security.

So apparently, the American Founders risked their lives and fortunes in order to wage war against Great Britain and declare independence from the King -- all in order to vest "near dictatorial power" in the American President in all matters of foreign policy and national security. And, of course, for the Michael Goldfarbs of the world, "war" and "national security" -- and the "near dictatorial power" vested in the President in those areas -- now encompasses virtually every government action, since scary and dangerous Muslims are lurking everywhere, on every corner, and the entire world is one big "battlefield" in the "War on Terrorism," including U.S. soil.

Until the Bill Kristols and John Yoos and other authoritarians of that strain entered the political mainstream, I never heard of prominent Americans who describe the power that they want to vest in our political leaders as "near dictatorial." Anyone with an even passing belief in American political values would consider the word "dictatorial" -- at least rhetorically, if not substantively -- to define that which we avoid at all costs, not something which we seek, embrace and celebrate. If there is any political principle that was previously common to Americans regardless of partisan orientation, it was that belief.

But The Weekly Standard has an agenda single-mindedly focused on the Middle East and Muslims that outweighs everything else, and nothing can impede that agenda -- certainly not something as comparatively unimportant as the American constitutional framework. That's why, to Goldfarb, there is nothing at all odd about advocating "near dictatorial power" vested in the President (at least the current President). For this faction, anything that promotes the all-important agenda of Middle East hegemony and war against "our" enemies is, by definition, good.

The notion that our Constitution vests anything like "near dictatorial power" in the President in any area -- let alone areas as broadly defined as "foreign policy and war" and "national security" -- is so utterly absurd that no response ought to be required. In his post, Goldfarb places a link over the phrase "near dictatorial power" which takes one to Federalist 70, which contains Alexander Hamilton's argument as to why powers assigned by the Constitution to the Executive ought to be vested in one individual rather than an executive council.

Who knows what support Goldfarb thinks there is anywhere in the Federalist Papers for a belief in "near dictatorial power," but if I had to guess, Goldfarb is likely referring to this sentence in Federalist 70:

Every man the least conversant in Roman story, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.
Goldfarb seems to think that when Hamilton described a Roman "Dictator" with "absolute power," he was describing what he hoped the new American President would be. Does that argument need any refutation?

The fact that The Weekly Standard lies at the center of our mainstream political spectrum -- Bill Kristol's endless series of falsehoods throughout the Bush presidency and his endless calls for new wars against more countries was rewarded with a featured column in Time -- by itself explains political developments over the last six years which were previously unthinkable. The Bill Kristols are those who exert the most influence over this administration, and they simply do not believe in the defining political principles of this country.

One of the best summaries of those basic principles comes from Antonin Scalia in his opinion in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, when he patiently tried to explain what previously -- prior to the ascension of the Michael Goldfarbs, John Yoos and Dick Cheneys -- did not need to be explained in this country: namely, that the President of the United States does not have the power to imprison American citizens without charges or a trial, and that does not change in the slightest merely because the President cites the imperatives of "war" (emphasis added):

The proposition that the Executive lacks indefinite wartime detention authority over citizens is consistent with the Founders' general mistrust of military power permanently at the Executive's disposal. In the Founders' view, the "blessings of liberty" were threatened by "those military establishments which must gradually poison its very fountain." The Federalist No. 45, p. 238 (J. Madison). No fewer than 10 issues of the Federalist were devoted in whole or part to allaying fears of oppression from the proposed Constitution's authorization of standing armies in peacetime.

Many safeguards in the Constitution reflect these concerns. Congress's authority "[t]o raise and support Armies" was hedged with the proviso that "no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years." U.S. Const., Art. 1, §8, cl. 12. Except for the actual command of military forces, all authorization for their maintenance and all explicit authorization for their use is placed in the control of Congress under Article I, rather than the President under Article II. As Hamilton explained, the President's military authority would be "much inferior" to that of the British King:

"It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral of the confederacy: while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war, and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies; all which, by the constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." The Federalist No. 69, p. 357.
A view of the Constitution that gives the Executive authority to use military force rather than the force of law against citizens on American soil flies in the face of the mistrust that engendered these provisions.
One of the principal purposes of the Federalist Papers -- which Goldfarb obscenely cites as though it supports his twisted views of dictatorial omnipotence in America -- was to assuage widespread concerns (or, as Scalia put it, "mistrust") that the President would be, in essence, a new British King. That fear was not eliminated or even diminished, but instead was particularly pronounced, with regard to the President's role as "Commander-in-Chief," which is why there are so many safeguards in the form of Congressional powers designed to limit that role. All of this is excruciatingly basic and obvious, really not much beyond what seventh grade civics students are taught about what distinguishes a Republic from a "dictatorship."

What the actual Americans who founded the country feared (as opposed to "hoped for and craved") was that the President would wield "near dictatorial power." Anyone with doubts should simply read Article II -- defining the powers of the President -- and see how limited those powers are. Even the glorious sounding power of "Commander-in-Chief" is, as Scalia noted, nothing more than the power, when Congress decides to fund a military and when it authorizes the use of military force, to act as top General directing troop movements and the like. In all other respects, those powers are checked, regulated and limited by the people through their Congress.

America was founded to avoid the warped and tyrannical vision which The Weekly Standard and its comrades crave (and which they have spent the last six years pursuing and implementing). This group actually thinks that, right this very minute, we are at war with Iran and Syria -- and that the President can and should act accordingly against our "Enemies." And they think that even though Congress has not declared war on those countries, something they consider to be only an irrelevant technicality, even though it is that "technicality" which Hamilton, in Federalist 69, identified as one of the key features distinguishing the American President from the British King:

The one [the American President] would have a a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other [the British King], in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority.
Theoretical disputes aside, Americans who believe in the defining political principals of this country ought to find the phrase "near dictatorial power" to be intrinsically repugnant. But The Weekly Standard and comrades don't believe in those principles, and hence can openly embrace that phrase. Although that is not exactly news, it is still always valuable to highlight when their declarations of what they really are find such explicit expression.

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