Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Role of the Commander in Chief in the Forever War

Even if Congress hasn't done much so far to actually stop Bush's escalation in Iraq (which looks more and more like the beginning of the neocons' real objective, a war against Iran), at least the Senate hearings chaired by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) are asking the right questions, with even Arlen Specter (R-PA) starting to develop something resembling a vestigial spine.
A Senate Republican on Tuesday directly challenged President Bush's declaration that "I am the decision-maker" on issues of war.

"I would suggest respectfully to the president that he is not the sole decider," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said during a hearing on Congress' war powers amid an increasingly harsh debate over Iraq war policy. "The decider is a shared and joint responsibility," Specter said.
Central to this issue is the president's role as commander in chief. Of whom, exactly? That's the issue raised by historian Garry Wills in a recent NYT Op-Ed titled "At Ease, Mr. President."
We hear constantly now about “our commander in chief.” The word has become a synonym for “president.” It is said that we “elect a commander in chief.” It is asked whether this or that candidate is “worthy to be our commander in chief.”

But the president is not our commander in chief. He certainly is not mine. I am not in the Army.
Will discusses how the job, which is described narrowly and very specifically in the Constitution as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” has undergone massive scope creep over the last six decades.
That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.
This is not a partisan political issue, at least not in its origins. Although Bush and Cheney have been quick to take advantage of every bit of power they can squeeze out of this situation, it has deeper roots in the American psyche and political institutions. These roots are examined by William Pfaff in a long, thoughtful essay in the New York Review of Books, "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America."
President George Bush has decided to disregard both the political message of the 2006 midterm election and congressional pressure for an early end to America's Iraq involvement, as well as the Baker-Hamilton proposals. These decisions are meeting much opposition, which is likely to fail. Bush's opponents have been unable to propose a course of withdrawal that is not a politically prohibited concession of American defeat and that does not risk still more destructive consequences in Iraq and probably the region—even though the result of delayed withdrawal could be worse in all respects. Most of Bush's critics in Congress, in the press and television, and in the foreign policy community are hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built.

This followed from a larger intellectual failure. For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of "patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies...and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world" (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for "ending tyranny in the world."[1]

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.
It's precisely because most of the underlying assumptions governing American foreign policy are shared by most Americans and both political parties, that opposition to Bush needs to be broadly, not narrowly, focused. It needs to focus on ends more than means, broad foreign policy objectives more than specific military tactics. Above all, it needs to transcend the increasing militarization of American society.

Otherwise Bush will continue to act as if he is commander in chief of each and every one of us. Positioning himself as commander in chief of a nation at war, he will surely drag us into a wider war that none of want -- and which will be a disaster for America and the world.

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