I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Michael Gerson and the Bush administration's "noble story"

The most under-appreciated influence on the Bush presidency is almost certainly Michael Gerson, the evangelical Christian who served as Bush's chief speechwriter from the beginning of Bush's presidency until recently, when he resigned. Gerson is a superb speechwriter -- measured by the ability to construct a persuasive and sometimes inspiring case for any given policy, regardless of the policy's merits -- and he is a close confidant of the President.

He has a new essay in Newsweek purporting to describe how the 9/11 attacks "changed George W. Bush." Most of it is nothing more than the now-cliched neoconservative claptrap about how the lesson the President drew from 9/11 is that "as long as the Middle East remains a bitter and backward mess, America will not be secure," and that consequently, the President is driven by "a vision: a reformed Middle East that joins the world instead of resenting and assaulting it." Gerson also tries to rejuvenate some of his old 9/11 rhetorical glory by lengthily describing his personal recollections of that day to justify the President's actions -- because, of course, only Bush supporters, not Bush critics, were moved by those events.

Initially, just as an aside, it is somewhat baffling that those who seek to defend the President do so by claiming that battling terrorism is dependent upon reducing the level of chaos and hatred in the Middle East -- even though the region has more chaos, violence, and anti-American resentment than at any time in recent history. To justify these disasters, Gerson elaborates on the administration's condescending and even creepy maternity metaphor: "Condoleezza Rice calls this the 'birth pangs' of a new Middle East, and it is a complicated birth." We achieve Middle East peace with war, stability with chaos, pro-American alliances with elections of intensely anti-U.S. regimes. And, like God himself did, we re-make their world in our own Good image -- through air attacks, proxy wars, and ground invasions. But all of that is just standard neoconservative incoherence that has been noted many times before.

What is most notable about Gerson's essay is that it certainly seems as though he believes a military confrontation with Iran is both necessary and imminent, and devotes the bulk of his essay to making the case:

First, the nation may be tired, but history doesn't care. It is not fair that the challenge of Iran is rising with Iraq, bloody and unresolved. But, as President Kennedy used to say, "Life is not fair."

Behind all the chaos and death in Lebanon and northern Israel, Iran is the main cause of worry in the West Wing—the crisis with the highest stakes. Its government shows every sign of grand regional ambitions, pulling together an anti-American alliance composed of Syria, terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, and proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite other disagreements, all the factions in Iran—conservative, ultraconservative and "let's usher in the apocalypse" fanatics—seem united in a nuclear nationalism.

Some commentators say that America is too exhausted to confront this threat. But presidential decisions on national security are not primarily made by the divination of public sentiments; they are made by the determination of national interests. And the low blood-sugar level of pundits counts not at all. Here the choice is not easy, but it is simple: can America (and other nations) accept a nuclear Iran? . . . .

There are still many steps of diplomacy, engagement and sanctions between today and a decision about military conflict with Iran—and there may yet be a peaceful solution. But in this diplomatic dance, America should not mirror the infinite patience of Europe. There must be someone in the world capable of drawing a line—someone who says, "This much and no further." At some point, those who decide on aggression must pay a price, or aggression will be universal. If American "cowboy diplomacy" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Several points to note about these striking passages:

(1) It has been obvious for some time that the President's most bloodthirsty supporters are pushing for war with Iran, and the disappointment and humiliation they feel in the face of a collapsing Iraq and a failed Lebanon invasion has intensified that need -- hence, all the talk about how "Iran won" the war in Lebanon. But Gerson isn't just some radio talk show host or National Review Corner warrior. He is one of the President's most trusted advisors, and the fact that he is openly and aggressively making the case for military confrontation against Iran is much more meaningful than some Mark Steyn rant or Rush Limbaugh monologue.

(2) The unbridled disdain for the democratic process is palpable in Gerson's sermon. Sure, he notes contemptuously, the public does not want more war. They are tired and angry about the disastrous one we are still fighting in Iraq. But nothing matters less than "public sentiments." No war president worth his salt can be deterred by something as meek and irrelevant as the "low blood-sugar level" of anti-war losers. The President has a mission, a "vision" to fulfill, and he must be driven by what he knows is Good and Right -- not by what Americans think and want, not by what "experts" believe, not by evidence showing that his course produces failures.

The 9/11 attacks justify all of this because it made the President something more than a President; it made him a Great Cause. As Gerson puts it, after recounting his most melodramatic 9/11 memories: "Starting in those days, I felt not merely part of an administration, but part of a story; a noble story." Nothing as lowly or ephemeral as public opinion is going to impede this "noble story," driven by this great man with his mission of overarching moral imperatives. In many ways, that is the Bush presidency in a nutshell.

Gerson's claim that "presidential decisions on national security are not primarily made by the divination of public sentiments" would come as a great surprise to the Founders, who expressly required a Declaration of War from Congress precisely because they believed the nation should fight wars only if the American people decide to take that risk. To be so disdainful about the role of American public opinion with regard to decisions of war and peace reflects nothing less than a contempt for the defining values of our country, something that is hardly surprising coming from one of the most significant advisors to the President.

(3) I have written before that the administration's theory of executive power almost certainly means that they believe they have the right to initiate a war on Iran even without any declaration of war or any other form of Congressional approval. Indeed, they would be empowered to do so even in the face of Congressional opposition. Groups such as the Heritage Foundation have made clear that in the wake of 9/11, there can be no limits on the President's decision-making powers with regard to the use of military force.

Although I cannot find the link right now (I will add it if someone posts it in Comments), Secretary Rice was asked at a Congressional hearing in 2005 whether the administration believed it needed Congressional authorization to attack Iran, and she was, as I recall, quite evasive in her answer (see UPDATE below). What is the administration's view as to whether it can initiate an offensive strike against Iran without a democratic debate followed by a declaration of war or authorization from Congress to use military force?

This administration would have a very hard time convincing a majority of Americans -- and a majority of a war-weary and frightened Congress -- to explicitly authorize military force against Iran. That is what makes these questions so pressing. The administration agreed to let Congress vote on the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq only because they were guaranteed in advance that Congress would give them all the authority they wanted. But they won't have it nearly so easy this time with Iran. Would that be an impediment to finding a way to provoke a military confrontation? Gerson's essay strongly suggests that the last thing that would impede the administration's warmongering is public opinion.

UPDATE: Here is the Rice quote (h/t IngSoc):

Last October, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whether the president would circumvent congressional authorization if the White House chose military action against Iran or Syria. She answered, "I will not say anything that constrains his authority as commander-in-chief."

When pressed by Senator Paul Sarbanes about whether the administration can exercise a military option without an authorization from Congress, Rice replied, "The president never takes any option off the table, and he shouldn't."

Is there any real doubt about whether the Bush administration would let something as petty as Americans' opposition to a new war (expressed through their Congress) stand in the way of the next chapter of their grand "noble story," set in Tehran?

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