Monday, November 01, 2004

Electoral Elucidations: What This Election Is Really About

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

Well, this is it. Tomorrow, voters go to the polls to decide the fate of America for generations to come. Sound like hyperbole? I know, we've all heard the pundits pontificate about how this is the most important election in our lifetime. Why? Because, the next president could have an opportunity to choose the next supreme court justice, many say. Well, guess what? They said that last time, too. And no justices have died or stepped down in the past four years. So the same could be said about any election. No, the true significance of this election is what the press is not telling you, because it sounds too alarmist, yet that does not diminish the fact that it is also true: the continued existence of American democracy itself is at stake.

First off, the abuses of this administration at home. The abrigment of Constitutional rights by this administration, particularly by John Ashcroft, in the name of fighting terrorism, through the PATRIOT Act in particular, are well known and need little explanation. Just to sum up, though, the USA PATRIOT Act (and yes, in all caps; it stands for: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism; get the feeling they were trying to come up with this abbreviation?), an attempt to fix the vulnerabilities in the legal and intelligence systems that facilitated the September 11 hijackers, allows the government to clandestinely spy on American citizens even without having "probable cause". For more scary stuff in the PATRIOT Act, I recommend, but you can find other liberal and conservative criticisms of the Act through a quick Google search.

Even more troubling is what is not contained in the PATRIOT Act: The Bush Administration has claimed that the president has the right to designate not just foreign nationals, but American citizens as "enemy combatants", subject to being secretly arrested, never informed of the charges against them (violating the constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus), not being able to choose legal council, having the government monitor any and all discussions with the government appointed-lawyer to provide incriminating evidence for the prosecution to use against them in court (thus violating attorney-client privilege, as well as all basic standards of fairness), and trying this said non-enlisted American citizen in a secret military tribunal, with the possibility of the death penalty being applied. Think about this for a moment. The government appoints the prosecutor, defense attorney, and the tribunal judges. The government is accuser, criminal investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, jury, and yes, even hangman, all rolled into one. No appeal is possible, and all of this can be carried out in complete secrecy, without anyone else--the accused's friends or family--being any the wiser. The individual would simply have been "disappeared", as they would have called it in Chile under Augusto Pinochet, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, Germany under Adolf Hitler, or in any third-world dictatorship today. This is an unprecedented assault on our nation's constitutional foundation.

It is also an unjustified one. Sure, Abraham Lincoln suspended writ of habeas corpus in the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt tried foreign nationals in military tribunals in World War II. But these were understood to be emergency war powers to be used only to ensure America's continued existence when it was seriously imperiled, powers to be used only until the end of the war and then abandoned for the constitutional tools of peace. The Constitution had to be violated in order to save it. But no one can seriously claim Osama bin Ladin or any other terrorist poses the kind of imminent danger to Constitutional governance that the Confederacy or the Axis Powers did. This administration claims the right to use these powers for as long as the "War on Terrorism" goes on. Since terrorism has always existed, and since the United States is the dominant force (read target) in the world, and is likely to be so for decades to come, these war powers could be exercised indefinitely, as long as a president can claim there are terrorists, somewhere in the world, who wish Americans harm. At this point, we will have given dictatorial powers to our president. The Bush Administration has set a new precedent, shifting power to the presidency alone. And, as Lord Acton so aptly put it, absolute power does indeed tend to corrupt absolutely. If this President does not seize total dictatorial powers and abolish our democracy, some other president down the line will. Anytime you allow unchecked power to be concentrated in one office, eventually an unprincipled individual will attain that office, and our American Republic will be dead. The actions of this administration have put in jeopardy the continued functioning of American democracy. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." And they will receive neither.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has seen the light of reason, and struck down both the military tribunals of foreign nationals at Guantanamo Bay and the military tribunals of American citizens. American civilians have a right to face their accuser in a civilian court of law, the court has held. But the Bush Administration has been slow to comply with these new rulings, where they bother to enforce them at all. Bush seems to be saying, like Andrew Jackson did, "The Supreme Court has made its decision. Now let them enforce it."

Most worrisome about all this, is that there is little real congressional oversight. The Founding Fathers wanted to check the power of the chief executive, so they gave Congress the "purse strings" to enable Congress to provide oversight over the executive branch. Yet this administration has gone out of its way to avoid any kind of oversight altogether. From Cheney's attempt to keep the minutes of his energy task force secret, to administration attempts to get appropriations--in reality, blank checks--with "no strings attached" (such as the money Congress appropriated to respond to September 11, which they were told would go to fighting our enemies in Afghanistan, but which was instead secretly misappropriated and misdirected to begin the buildup to war against Iraq, according to Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack), this administration has in numerous ways, actively sought to undermine the elaborate system of checks and balances and the separation of powers the Founding Fathers wrote into our Constitution. This has been made possible by the fact that the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, so the majority party in Congress has willingly ceded its oversight authority to a White House that pleads, "Trust us, we know what to do better than you do, just do what we want and don't ask any pesky questions. Trust us, come on, take a leap of faith".

This is troubling, but just as troubling is what is happening abroad. The president has claimed the radical right to preemptively attack any nation that he, and he alone, deems to be a "threat", or which he claims could become a "threat" at some future date. This was the same right claimed by Japan at Pearl Harbor and Germany in both World Wars. It is the excuse of tyrants, the code of conduct of common street thugs: get him before he can get me. It is an inherently immoral doctrine, condemned as such by the Pope and the leaders of most major Christian denominations, as well as by respected Jewish and Muslim leaders in America.

Lost in all of this is the reason why we actually went to war in Iraq. The anti-war protesters were right to oppose the war by hoarsely screaming, "No Blood For Oil!" But the oil of Iraq wasn't coveted by the Administration for the sake of enriching American oil companies. Think. What one commodity is at the heart of the world economy? Oil, of course. And if you control the majority of the world's oil, you have a stranglehold on every nation dependent on that oil. Orwellian, isn't it? He who controls the past (fossil fuels) controls the future.

See, it all started with a group called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). The Twentieth Century was called "The American Century", mostly by Americans. At the end of the Cold War, the United States stood like a Colossus, the world's only superpower. And the good people at PNAC wanted to ensure that that status quo wouldn't change anytime soon, that the Twenty-First Century would be another "American Century." Of course, there were other nations that might become America's equal or even its superior over the coarse of the next century. The economic potential of the European Union already rivals that of the U.S. China, India, or even a revived Russia might also challenge America's economic, or eventually military, superiority. So, to prevent this, the PNAC advocated taking over the oil supplies in the Middle East America did not already control, namely those of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. During the 1990s, European, Russian, and Chinese companies did business with Saddam's regime, gaining oil concessions, while U.S. businesses were frozen out by U.S. sanctions. The Iraqi oil supply had to be controlled by the United States if long-term American hegemony was going to be established over all these nations.

And so, the PNAC advocated "regime change" in Iraq, always publicly at least, relying on the pretexts of spreading democracy in the Middle East and ending the danger posed by Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. The Clinton Administration wasn't interested. But the incoming administration of George W. Bush expressed intense interest from the very beginning. Maybe this was because Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle were all members or supporters of the PNAC back in the 1990s.

Suddenly, much that was incomprehensible, now makes sense. The penchant for unilateralist action, the disdain for international treaties, the willful alienation of our traditional allies, why the military didn't bother to secure Iraq's artistic treasures, ammo dumps, and suspected nuclear program sites, but did immediately secure the Oil Ministry in Baghdad--all of this makes sense if the hypothesis I have outlined is true. Of course, I too wish to see America maintain its position in the world, but only an ultra-paranoid person would wish to squash the peaceful future economic development of other nations. The United States military outspends the militaries of the next 20 nations combined. We have such military superiority, there is no need to worry about being surpassed anytime soon, so this is a moot point. Plus, despite the dominance of the United States, most of the problems we face, from international terrorism to AIDS to global warming are transnational problems. We need the support of the entire world to solve these problems. And we can't get it if we insist on dominating the rest of the world by force and intimidation.

So, look at the Big Picture. We have a domestic policy that includes the taking away of constitutionally-protected God-given rights and a foreign policy that consists, quite literally, of a plan for world domination. Thus we see, under George W. Bush, the beginnings of an American Empire. Many of the neoconservative elite already speak approvingly of an "American Empire", while around the world the critics of this administration's policies also worry about the new "Empire". If there is one lesson history teaches, it is that democracy and empire are completely incompatible. For how can we be a beacon of freedom for all the world, Reagan's fabled "city on a hill", if the rest of the world fears and resents us? This was the great fear of the Founding Fathers, that like the only previous republic in history, the Roman Republic, the United States would succumb to the temptations of empire and lose its democracy in the process.

Never before have the American people been confronted with the question of America's destiny--republic or empire--in a presidential election. In contrast to President Bush, Senator John Kerry is in favor of repealing those sections of the PATRIOT Act that infringe upon essential liberties. Having been a Senator for 20 years, Kerry is unlikely to exhibit the same tendencies to undermine the Constitution's checks and balances as Bush, who had no legislative experience before arriving at the White House. Abroad, Kerry has built his campaign largely on a platform of mending our relations with our allies, something Bush probably would not be able to do in a second term due to all the bad blood he has engendered in his first term. The best way to stop America's progress toward empire, if not reverse it, is to elect John Kerry and John Edwards tomorrow.

Again, I return to the words of that wise sage, Benjamin Franklin. After the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what this new government would be. Franklin responded, "A republic--if you can keep it." This is the challenge of every generation of Americans. Democracy is not a self-perpetuating institution, not the default setting of a nation. It must be willed to continue to exist by each new generation of citizens and leaders. It must be fought for, and some in every generation must make the ultimate sacrifice to defend it. That is ultimately what this election tomorrow will determine: If we can continue to keep this grand republic.

~Michael J. Smith