Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Delusional Presidency

When the dust has cleared and historians start to get their heads around the Second Bush Administration, they might -- in their search for primary sources -- turn to Jack Goldsmith's book, The Terror Presidency. Goldsmith is a conservative legal scholar who teaches at Harvard. But, in October 2003, he was appointed to head the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Council. Shortly after assuming his post, he determined that several of the administration's previously written legal opinions rested on "severely damaged legal foundations," because they were "sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the president."

When Goldsmith sought to withdraw some of these opinions, he encountered stiff resistance, particularly from David Addington, who now serves as Dick Cheney's chief of staff -- and who has advanced the novel argument that Cheney is not a member of the executive branch of government. As Goldsmith tells the story, when he sought to withdraw the so called "torture memos," which interpreted the Geneva Conventions as allowing certain interrogation techniques like water boarding, Addington was furious. The fact that the United States had prosecuted water boarding as a war crime for one hundred years was irrelevant. "The president has already decided," Addington told Goldsmith, "that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision."

And therein lies the essential delusion of the Bush presidency -- in a time of war, when the nation's security is at stake, a president has full authority to do as he chooses. Congressional and legal oversight -- which would allow for second guessing -- be damned.

That essential delusion has, in the case of Iraq, led to a series of other delusions. The first was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The second was that the United States could bestow democracy on Iraq. The third was that the so called "surge" would buy Iraqis "breathing space" to achieve national reconciliation. The latest delusion, as was apparent last week, is that if the surge does not promote "top down" reconciliation, it will promote "bottom up" reconciliation -- with Anbar province serving as exhibit A for the defense. But, as many reporters who have been on the ground in Iraq will tell you, that reconciliation began before the surge was conceived.

Goldstein resigned his position nine months after he assumed it, presumably because the powers that be were not heeding his advice. And his advice was that there was a template for the way presidents should exercise power in wartime. That template was established by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, two presidents with some experience of conducting a war. Instead of relying on what Goldsmith calls "the hard power of prerogative," the second president Bush would have been wiser to practice "the soft factors of legitimization -- consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values -- in dealing with Congress, the courts and allies."

The irony, of course, is that the first President Bush understood and practiced this template. It is tragic that, while the father provided his son with a "teachable moment," the lesson was lost. Obviously, the second president Bush has -- as the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne once phrased it -- "learned much amiss."

On Thursday, Mr. Bush announced that the thirty-one thousand soldiers in the surge would be home by the time he left office. He did not note that the joint chiefs have told him that the armed forces does not have the manpower to sustain the surge. Instead, he claimed that the reduction of troops represented a "return on success" -- meaning that there will be the same number of troops in Iraq when he leaves office as when the surge began. Clearly, Mr. Bush holds fast to his delusions.

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