Thursday, December 22, 2005

“We’re At War”

Since 9/11, the rationale for everything this administration has done has been under the cover that we are at war and therefore whatever the president has done, including going around Congress, is permissible. (I would like to see the Republicans stance on that if it had been a Democrat in the White House, but we’ll have time to find that out soon enough.) Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly looks at what it means to say, “we’re at war.”

… Is George Bush really a “wartime president,” as he’s so fond of calling himself? Conservatives take it for granted that he is, while liberals tend to avoid the subject entirely for fear of being thought unserious about the War on Terror. But it’s something that ought be brought up and discussed openly.

Consider a different war, for example. It’s safe to say that whatever Bush’s NSA program actually involves, no one would have batted an eyelash if FDR had approved a similar program during World War II. Experience suggests that during a period of genuine, all-out war, few people complain when a president pushes the boundaries of the law based on military necessity. But aside from World War II, what else counts as wartime?

If you count only serious hot wars, the United States has been at war for over 20 of the 65 years since 1940. That’s a lot of “wartime.”

However, if you count the Cold War, as conservatives generally think we should, the tally shoots up to about 50 years of war. That means the United States has been almost continuously at war during the past 65 years — and given the nature of the War on Terror, we’ll continue to be at war for the next several decades.

If this is how we define “wartime,” it means that in the century from 1940 to 2040 the president will have had emergency wartime powers for virtually the entire time. But does that make sense? Is anyone really comfortable with the idea that three decades from now the president of the United States will have had wartime executive powers for nearly a continuous century?

Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There’s “wartime” and then there’s “wartime,” and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers. George Bush may have the best intentions in the world — and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world — but that still doesn’t mean he has the kind of plenary power Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised during their wars.

During a genuine emergency, the president’s powers are at their most expansive. The rest of the time they’re more restricted, whether he considers himself a wartime president or not. Right now, if George Bush needs or wants greater authority than he currently has, he should ask Congress to give it to him — after all, they approve black programs all the time and are fully capable of holding closed hearings to debate sensitive national security issues. It’s worth remembering that “regulation of the land and naval forces” is a power the constitution gives to Congress, and both Congress and the president ought to start taking that a little more seriously.

There’s another element here that ought to be considered, and that is the salesmanship that goes into convincing the American people that we are at war. It may sound crass to think of the war on terror as a Madison Avenue campaign, but if the administration was truly serious about uniting the country to fight a common enemy, then perhaps a little reading of history would be in order.

Up until the moment the bombs fell at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt, who had been itching to get into World War II since 1939, faced a reluctant public and a hostile Congress; the Republicans to a man were isolationists or America Firsters. The peacetime draft had been renewed by one vote and the polls all showed that we should stay out of “foreign wars.” That all changed on December 7, 1941, and the nation switched to a war footing almost immediately. Rationing was instituted. Taxes were raised. War bonds were sold. Industrial production went from building cars to building planes and tanks. It touched everyone’s life from the way you shopped for food to the way you went to work. Moreover, the president did everything he could to work with his opponents in Congress by including their counsel in the decisions he made and putting aside party differences to get the job done. If he couldn’t get them to work with him, he did his best to at least make sure they were on board for the effort.

If, as President Bush claims, the war on terror is the gravest threat we are facing since World War II, they aren’t selling it like it is; they’re doing just the opposite. They’ve cut taxes, relied on a volunteer arny, depleted the National Guard, and treated members of the opposition party as if they were the enemy if they raised questions about the conduct of the war. (This leaves out the entire premise that the invasion of Iraq — the equivalent of invading Italy in retaliation for Pearl Harbor — was based on flawed and cooked evidence.) The attitude seemed to have been that “yes, we’re at war, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go to Disneyland!” How then can the American people take it seriously when the only sacrifice we’re asked to make are the lives of the soldiers and the poisoning of the political landscape both at home and with our allies?

One of the lines emerging in the FISA story is that the administration didn’t ask Congress to change the law was that they knew they’d say “No,” so they went ahead and broke it anyway. This is the same rationale a 16-year-old uses when he sneaks out to go to an unsupervised party, and it’s going over just as well. Perhaps if the Bush administration had done a better job of selling the war on terror in the beginning; worked with the Democrats, asked the country to pitch in, and kept our eyes on the real target — Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden — he would have gotten whatever he wants and with the full support of the people. He had it once.