President George Bush’s State of the Union address on 23 January was comparatively somber and restrained. There was little of the usual jingoism and flag-waving that normally characterizes these carefully staged nationalistic spectacles which always remind me of old Chairman Leonid Brezhnev’s harangues to the Soviet Central Committee, whose members, like many US legislators, would jump up at every cliché and clap like trained seals.
The reason for the somber mood was clear: the unfolding debacle in Iraq. There was no more, “bring’em on” gasconading, though the president again sought to link the war he began in Iraq to his ongoing campaign against Islamic resistance movements and terrorists. Outside of the remaining red areas, fewer and fewer Americans are buying Bush’s preposterous claim that pursuing the ugly war in Iraq is somehow fighting “worldwide terrorism.” Most sensible Americans have finally understood that their nation’s invasion of Iraq has magnified, not diminished, anti-western violence.
As Bush was giving his speech, a remarkable new poll showed most Americans now believe Congress, not the president, should manage foreign policy. Perhaps the long era of presidential pre-eminence in America might be nearing an end.
This is a remarkable sea change. Following Bush’s address, the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee politely rebuked Bush’s plans to send more troops to Iraq. A similar non-binding resolution from the full Democratic-controlled House is expected shortly.
But the real power behind Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, immediately sneered back, “it won’t stop us.” His contemptuous retort illustrates the neo-totalitarian impulses that continue to grip the Republican Party’s far right. Cheney and pro-war neoconservatives closely linked to Israel’s far rightists are the prime exponents of imperial presidency, the Iraq war, and attacking Iran. They dismiss Congress and America’s courts as “little jabber houses,” to paraphrase the notorious British imperialist, Sir Basil Zaharoff.
The stage is now set for what could become a major constitutional crisis between executive and legislative branches.
Under the US Constitution, the president, a position modeled on the consular office of Republican Rome, is military leader and holds primacy in foreign policy. The US Congress was patterned on the Roman Senate, whose bunched rods and ax insignia it bears on its wall on either side of the speaker’s dais. Congress declares war, controls pursue strings, levies troops, and confirms treaties. The Constitution is vague about Congressional power in foreign affairs. But, at minimum, Congress speaks for all Americans; particularly in wartime, and must not be ignored.
Bush’s last term marks the zenith of the long growth of the imperial presidency that began with Franklin Roosevelt, and the lamentable, concurrent decline of Congressional authority. When I was a boy — during the term of the man I consider modern America’s greatest president, Dwight Eisenhower, the leaders of the Senate and House were men of great power and distinction whose influence was almost equal to that of the president. The relentless growth of presidential power, and the slavish attention focused on the presidency by the media, steadily undermined the role of Congress and that other nearly forgotten arm of government, the judiciary.
The 9/11 attacks and a too obedient Republican majority, dominated by Southerners and Christian fundamentalists, turned Congress into a rubber stamp for Bush’s policies. In the process, most members of Congress demonstrated political cowardice and gross dereliction of their duty to defend the Constitution, the nation’s laws, and citizen’s rights.
Hillary Clinton and fellow Democrats who now piously denounce the Iraq war eagerly voted for it in 2003 out of sheer ignorance, war fever, or fear of being branded “anti-patriotic” by Republicans. In 2008, American voters will hopefully censure those legislators who voted for this faked, totally unnecessary war, and then approved the administration’s growing use of torture, kidnapping, and secret prisons. Never, in my memory, has Congress brought so much shame on itself, nor sunk so low.
Congress is now belatedly trying to assert itself. But its so far timid pleadings for Bush to desist from his latest Iraq folly are not enough. The Constitution declares Congress the premier arm of government. It is Congress’ duty to demand President Bush and VP Cheney, who have gone dangerously astray, to cease and desist. Cheney’s views notwithstanding, America is not a monarchy, and he is not Richelieu.
White House defenders claim Congress had no constitutional right to interfere in the detailed conduct of war. They claim being in a war gives the president the right to ignore or violate the Constitution, America’s laws, and citizen’s civil rights.
This is not true. The essence of America’s political system that has been a beacon to the world for two centuries is the remarkable system of checks and balances conceived by its founding fathers to prevent the emergence of an autocrat, despot, or monarch. A president run amok, or one with monarchist ambitions, was the greatest fear of the founding fathers who had just waged a bitter national struggle to free themselves from the rule of King George III.
It is precisely Congress’s vital duty to stop a president and vice president who have lost touch with reality, violate the Constitution, and are taking America over a cliff. Besides advising and consenting, Congress must, in rare times of peril, confront. In Republican Rome, the Senate had the right to remove a consul who failed to win wars, behaved shamefully, dishonored the republic, or violated the Senate’s orders.
Congress must cease its timidity and stop entreating the president as if he were king. He is only chief executive of the republic, one man among many. Congress is the board of directors. The president, in spite of his supporter’s efforts, is not the sacrosanct embodiment of America; that role belongs to Congress.
Congress bears heavy responsibility for the debacle in Iraq and the ruin of America’s good name around the globe. It’s time for the new US Congress to begin doing its job by acting like Roman Senators and stop acting like a bunch of obsequious courtiers.