Saturday, April 02, 2005


Conscientious Objector


As published in The New Republic, October 25, 2004

Sixteen years ago, just out of college, I volunteered at the Republican National Convention as a man named George Bush prepared to begin a fall campaign that would see him defeat a Democrat from Massachusetts. The sparkling words of an acceptance speech crafted by Peggy Noonan--and delivered almost flawlessly--helped him inspire his party and a country that saw him as an extension of Ronald Reagan. It fell to that George Bush to "close out" the cold war and launch a different one in the Persian Gulf.

Now, sixteen years later, after tenures working for the party and a couple of Republican members on Capitol Hill (including a speaker named Newt Gingrich) and becoming an earnest fellow traveler of the conservative movement, I find it impossible to support the current George Bush--whom his party sees as the ideological extension of Ronald Reagan--as he faces his own showdown with a Democrat from Massachusetts and oversees a war centered in the Middle East.

At the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush mocked John Kerry's claim of having "conservative values." But what are conservative values? Two of the core principles at the heart of modern conservatism are a belief in the virtue of smaller government and a conviction that government must be accountable to the public. Those principles were enunciated ten years ago in the Contract with America, which helped Republicans take full control of Congress for the first time in four decades. That document sought "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." In this context, Bush's first term has represented a betrayal of conservative values.

It's not simply a matter of outrageous spending or enlarged government programs--both offenses of which this administration is guilty, as manifested in a 25 percent domestic discretionary spending hike, a half-trillion-dollar Medicare expansion, and the ripping away of free-market agricultural reforms enacted over the past decade. The president continues to pursue tax cuts, as any conservative president would. But a government that cuts taxes and continues to spend ultimately becomes as amoral as one that raises taxes and spends.

Yet the Bush administration's free-spending fiscal record only hints at its larger rejection of conservative principles. The more fundamental betrayal arises from the administration's central focus: an ill-defined "war on terror" that has no determinable endpoint and that is used to justify an unprecedented expansion of executive power. To make matters worse, this administration shows little inclination to demand accountability from those who serve within it. In turn, the Republican Congress--ignoring its 1994 vow to "restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives"--appears disinclined to check the powers of the executive. Together, these factors endanger the long-term health of the republic.

It is a good thing Bush has an idealistic streak that informs his vision of the world. That idealism leads him to a belief that "freedom is not America's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world." But, without demanding accountability from his administration, that messianic zeal is being corrupted, and his policies are lurching out of control. Without a defined, limited overall vision of the war on terrorism and a corresponding commitment to government accountability, Bush can hardly claim to be the champion of "conservative values."

Speaking about the war on terrorism as the GOP convention kicked off, Bush told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." The White House immediately backpedaled from Bush's apparent gaffe, saying this was just a variation of what the president has always said--that the war on terrorism is a "different kind of war." But, as a former editor of this magazine, Michael Kinsley, once stated, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." And that's just what Bush was doing.

The past four decades have seen "wars" on social conditions ("poverty"), inanimate objects ("drugs"), and physical states ("teenage pregnancy"). (Each has met with limited, if any, success.) What is different now is that, this time, a president has asserted that we are in an actual war that must be fought with the full wartime powers of the presidency. With vague congressional approval, this assertion grants the president--and, more importantly, the presidency--powers deeply disturbing from a civil liberties perspective. Indeed, this expansion of presidential prerogative is anathema to the conservative belief in limited government.

The dangers of this new, unlimited power were plain to see at a tough congressional hearing in June. Attorney General John Ashcroft squared off against the Senate Judiciary Committee as it looked into whether Ashcroft's office provided legal cover to the Department of Defense on issues involving torture. The Wall Street Journal and other papers ran stories based on a heavily redacted 100-page memo, dated March 6, 2003. Written by a Defense Department working group, the memo seemed to outline ways to justify the use of aggressive interrogation techniques on detainees at Guantanamo without running afoul of international treaties forbidding torture. The Journal reported:

"In order to respect the president's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign ... (the prohibition against torture) must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his commander-in-chief authority," the report asserted. ... To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."

In essence, the authors of the Defense Department memo were arguing that, in wartime, getting around inconvenient laws is "inherent in the president." The memo's existence raised the possibility that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were, in fact, an extension of official policy.

At the hearing, Ashcroft denied that President Bush approved of torture. But, in refusing Democratic senators' demands to turn either the full memo or similar ones written by the Justice Department over to the Judiciary Committee, he said, "We are at war. And for us to begin to discuss all the legal ramifications of the war is not in our best interest and it has never been in times of war." Ashcroft was essentially asserting that Congress--whose oversight powers give it authority to demand accountability from the executive--should not be allowed to inquire about the quality of legal advice being given to the president. This, even though the apparent result of that advice "trickled down" to the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

If the answer to every legitimate congressional inquiry concerning presidential powers is that "we are at war" and that legislative questions concerning executive behavior are inappropriate, it becomes impossible for Congress to fulfill its constitutional mandate as a co-equal branch of government. At what point do the American people ask the obvious: What sort of war is this and exactly how long should a president have virtually indeterminate powers to wage it?

Yes, it is true that past presidents have taken on extraordinary wartime powers: In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; in World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the internment of Japanese citizens. But, in both cases, there existed a defined foe. With each, there was a sense of what victory meant and over whom that victory would be won. The Union would defeat the Confederacy; America and her allies would defeat the Axis powers. Even in the cold war, the ideology of communism had a clear home in the Soviet Union. Those conflicts would end with the defined enemy surrendering, being defeated, or the motivating ideology collapsing. However long it took, the American people knew there would be some sort of definite conclusion.

But, in President Bush's vision, the terrorist enemy remains amorphous. After September 11, Osama bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive." Then, as the Iraq war developed, Saddam Hussein became the ace of spades in the terrorist card deck. Now, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi is the new face of evil. The war, we are told, will not end with any one of these men's capture or death. It will continue until ... until ... until when, exactly? Thus, the comparisons many make to previous U.S. conflicts are hardly applicable. Neither are the comparisons to decisions of previous commanders-in-chief who put aside civil liberties. For the 40 years of the cold war, the United States held off a Soviet enemy that had the power to destroy the country several times over--yet civil liberties were never curtailed to the extent they are now. In the current struggle, which some call World War IV, Americans are being asked to sacrifice liberties in the face of an enemy that has less ability to damage us than the Soviets did. This is not to minimize the threat of Islamist fundamentalism, but it is essential to put the capabilities of the enemy in perspective.

The Supreme Court gave some shape to these questions in a series of rulings on the rights of Guantanamo detainees and American "enemy combatants" Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. What is broadly at stake could be seen in the vociferous end-of-the-spectrum minority statements by regular antagonists Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia. Scalia found the detention of Hamdi, captured in Afghanistan, unconstitutional, but disagreed with how the Court chose to resolve it--i.e., by saying that the September 13, 2001, congressional war resolution gave Bush the power to declare individuals enemy combatants. Scalia asserts that the Constitution provides only two options--either Congress could vote to suspend habeas corpus or Hamdi could be charged with a crime, such as treason. Otherwise, Hamdi couldn't be held indefinitely. "The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive," concludes Scalia.

On Padilla, the court declined to hear the case on a technicality--Padilla's lawyer sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in federal court, rather than the warden of the Louisiana jail in which Padilla was held. Stevens (who, in a man-bites-dog moment, also signed onto Scalia's dissent in the Hamdi case) railed against the Court decision not to hear the case:

At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free society....Access to counsel for the purpose of protecting the citizen from official mistakes and mistreatment is the hallmark of due process.

Executive detention of subversive citizens... may sometimes be justified to prevent persons from launching or becoming missiles of destruction. It may not, however, be justified by the naked interest in using unlawful procedures to extract information. Incommunicado detention for months on end is such a procedure.... For if this Nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

It is cold comfort that the furthest left and the furthest right justices on the Court are the ones arguing most vigorously about the dangers of an unchecked executive. But neither they nor any of their colleagues appear interested in pondering the hard questions of an American president with extra-constitutional "wartime" powers that could continue ad infinitum. Would these powers be automatically transferred to a hypothetical President John Kerry? President Hillary Rodham Clinton? President Jeb Bush? Should the American people simply take on faith the latest commander-in-chief's definition of who is or is not a terrorist? Would the American people have accepted such a refined status quo for the 40 years the cold war lasted? Or, in the formulation of adviser Karl Rove, the 30 years of Great Britain's conflict with the Irish Republican Army? (Even in that conflict, bargaining partners eventually emerged to craft an unsteady peace agreement, whereas Rove has dismissed the idea of ever signing a peace treaty with Al Qaeda.) How can the American people expect to stay on a war footing when the commander-in-chief has given them no concept of what "victory" would eventually look like? And how can they be expected indefinitely to tolerate an expansion of executive power that threatens the liberties upon which the nation was founded?

A permanent war would be dangerous enough if the public could be confident in its execution. But we cannot. That's because President Bush has failed to live up to the second key tenet of conservative government: accountability.

Take, for example, the Pentagon's disastrous planning for postwar Iraq. The lack of troops for the post-invasion period enabled the insurgency to bloom and put American soldiers at risk. Worse, while memos from Ashcroft's Justice Department seemingly provided legal cover for the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the material causes could be found, again, in the underdeployment of troops: "What went wrong at Abu Ghraib prison?" asked The New York Post's Ralph Peters, one of the more earnest supporters of invading Iraq. Pointing to the two independent reports examining the scandal, he concludes: "Woefully deficient planning for post-war Iraq, too few troops and inadequate leadership at the top." Peters is among the conservatives who believe the Abu Ghraib fiasco should have been the final straw for Rumsfeld.

But it didn't happen. And it won't happen, because accountability is a foreign word in this administration. To demonstrate how little he has learned, Rumsfeld observed, "Does [the abuse] rank up there with chopping off someone's head on television? It doesn't. It doesn't. Was it done as a matter of policy? No." Forget that the abuse was far more pervasive than just the handful of servicemen that first popped up in photographs; when the secretary of defense basically says, "Hey, what the terrorists do is much worse," the moral foundation upon which America stands begins to crumble. The president's stated goal was to try to bring democracy to the Middle East--not to allow us to become tainted by the barbarism so prevalent in the region we are attempting to liberate. So Rumsfeld stays on--even as the situation rapidly deteriorates.

Then again, this shouldn't come as a surprise: George Tenet remained in his position following the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history, enabling him to tell the president later that evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk." The first failure helped lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans; the second failure led us into a conflict from which there exists no clear exit strategy and that has rendered the word of the United States suspect. Yet Tenet stayed on, too.

And no wonder. As Bob Woodward writes in Plan of Attack, "[S]everal things were clear from the president's demeanor, his style and all that [Colin] Powell had learned about Bush. The president was not going to toss anyone over the side.... The president also made it clear that no one was to jump ship.... They were a team. The larger message was clear: Circle the wagons." The larger message is that loyalty is prized above all, regardless of the results and regardless of the effect on U.S. standing in the world.

The same pattern is evident in the other WMD scandal, a.k.a. the Wretched Medicare Debacle. As is well-known now, the prescription-drug-enhanced Medicare "reform" will cost a full quarter more--at least--than the originally announced $395 billion over ten years. Within weeks of the president's signing the bill into law, the measure ballooned to $534 billion. The re-estimation contributes to a record annual deficit for 2004. The Post reported that the larger numbers were known for "months" and that "the president's top health advisers gathered such evidence and shared it with select lawmakers"--while rank-and-file members of Congress were kept in the dark.

The deception on the numbers was combined with raw, hard politics that danced right up to the ethical and legal lines that supposedly govern the House. The legislation--the largest entitlement expansion in nearly 40 years--just squeaked by. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives kept the vote open for an unprecedented three hours in order to twist the arms of reluctant conservatives. Retiring Michigan Representative Nick Smith alleged that Republicans threatened the political future of his son if he didn't support the bill. Smith held his ground, despite the de facto extortion--actions that sparked an internal House inquiry that has resulted in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay having his hand slapped by the Ethics Committee for improperly trying to influence Smith's vote.

Ultimately, on both foreign and domestic policy, the public's trust has been betrayed. Why should the public trust its leaders with future policy if those leaders deceive and manipulate the people's elected representatives to get a favored policy passed? If the American public and the world at large now react skeptically to future presidential claims that the United States faces a foreign threat, who can blame them?

Similarly, the president's intent to reform Social Security will now be judged by the still-emerging costs of the Medicare reform--to say nothing of the political backlash from some seniors incensed at having to pay 17 percent more in premiums. The mishandling of domestic spending, of which Medicare is the prime example--whether because of ignorance, incompetence, or deceit--casts the same pall over Bush's domestic agenda that the collapse of Iraq does over his foreign policy. The president who dismisses criticism of the cost of Medicare is the same one who "miscalculated" the costs for rebuilding Iraq by at least $100 billion--and submitted a subsequent budget that omitted even an estimate of spending for the current military campaigns. Medicare actuary Richard Foster was threatened with firing if he told the truth about the costs of the reform bill, while his boss who pushed forward the lower numbers, Thomas Scully, departed quietly to a cushy health care-related policy job at a Washington, D.C., law firm. That was, of course, the same pattern we witnessed with the management of the Iraq war. Individuals who got the prewar details right--either in terms of troop strength (General Eric Shinseki) or in estimated fiscal costs (former National Economic Council Director Lawrence Lindsey)--were publicly rebuked or dismissed. Those who got the prewar details wrong remain in positions of authority. Conservatives--who fear unchecked, unaccountable government--should be especially appalled.

It would be wonderful to believe the president's promise that the war in Iraq will lead to democracy in a troubled region. An immigrant--I was born in the West Indies--tends to absorb the earnest, spiritual myths of his adopted nation even more than those native-born. Democracy is indeed a human value. But initiating a war to "liberate" an entire region far from our shores can hardly be called a conservative cause. It will be impossible to restrain a government kept on a permanent war footing. And, in liberty's name abroad, liberty at home will inevitably be compromised. It already has been.

No, a Kerry administration would not be any conservative's ideal. But, on limited government, a Democratic president would, arguably, force a Republican Congress to act like a Republican Congress. The last such combination produced some form of fiscal sanity. And, when it comes to accountability, one could hardly do worse. Of course, a conservative can still cast a libertarian vote on principle.

At crucial points before and after the Iraq war, Bush's middle managers have failed him, and the "brand" called America has suffered in the world market. In any other corporate structure plagued by this level of incompetence, the CEO would have a choice: Fire his middle managers or be held personally accountable by his shareholders. Because of his own misguided sense of "loyalty," Bush won't dismiss anyone. That leaves the country's shareholders little choice.

Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer.

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