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.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Our little Churchills

We've now arrived at the point where the White House and its followers reflexively characterize any criticism of the Leader's war of any kind as aid to the Enemy and an attack on our troops. They don't even bother any more to pretend that some types of criticism are "acceptable." It is now the duty of every patriotic American to cheer enthusiastically for the President's decisions. Anything else is tantamount to siding with the Enemy.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton, whose criticism of the war has been as muted and restrained as can be, "accused President Bush of trying to pass the problems in Iraq on to the next president and described his actions as 'the height of irresponsibility.'" The White House's immediate response: that is a "partisan attack that sends the wrong message to our troops, our enemies and the Iraqi people." That's the only response the Bush movement now even bothers to make: those who speak against the Leader hate the troops and help the Enemy.

Here is Bill Kristol yesterday on Fox telling Sen. John Warner -- literally -- that his duty as an American and a Senator is to keep his mouth shut and cheer on the President's plan:

John Warner -- there's a great puff piece about my senator from Virginia on the front page of the Washington Post saying what do they want us to do in the Senate, do nothing? That's absolutely right. Absolutely right.

Support the troops. Appropriate the funds. Encourage them. Let Dave Petraeus have a chance to win this war. Don't pass a meaningless resolution that, as Joe Lieberman said -- on the one hand, it's non-binding so it's meaningless, but symbolically, it could only encourage our enemies.

That was preceded by courageous tough-guy Brit Hume's mockery of Chuck Hagel: "I would say there's one exception to that, and that's poor Chuck Hagel, who seems to -- who's getting grandiloquent about voting for a legislatively meaningless Senate resolution and calling it courage. That makes you kind of sad." And earlier in the show, Sen. Lieberman said -- again -- that anti-surge resolutions will "discourage our troops" and "encourage the enemy."

So Chuck Hagel needs courage lectures from Brit Hume, John Warner needs permission from Bill Kristol before he can express his views about the war, and we all need to listen to Joe Lieberman and the White House tell us that criticizing the Leader helps the Terrorists. These are the same people -- the President, Lieberman, Bill Kristol, the Fox warriors -- who never tire of dressing up in Winston Churchill costumes and spouting the only historical analogy they know in the most reductionist form possible ("Churchill = strong, war; Chamberlian = weak, anti-war; we must Be Churchill").

But Churchill would have recoiled -- he did recoil -- at their argument that criticism of the Leader and the war are improper and hurts the war effort. Churchill repeatedly made the opposite argument -- that one of the strengths of democracies is that leaders are held to account for their decisions and that those decisions are subject to intense and vigorous debate, especially in war. In January, 1942, Britian had suffered a series of defeats and failures (which Churchill candidly acknowledged and for which he took responsibility), and he therefore addressed the House of Commons and insisted that a public debate be held in order to determine whether he still had the confidence of the House of Commons in his conduct of the war (h/t MD):

From time to time in the life of any Government there come occasions which must be clarified. No one who has read the newspapers of the last few weeks about our affairs at home and abroad can doubt that such an occasion is at hand.

Since my return to this country, I have come to the conclusion that I must ask to be sustained by a Vote of Confidence from the House of Commons. This is a thoroughly normal, constitutional, democratic procedure. A Debate on the war has been asked for. I have arranged it in the fullest and freest manner for three whole days.

Any Member will be free to say anything he thinks fit about or against the Administration or against the composition or personalities of the Government, to his heart's content, subject only to the reservation, which the House is always so careful to observe about military secrets. Could you have anything freer than that? Could you have any higher expression of democracy than that? Very few other countries have institutions strong enough to sustain such a thing while they are fighting for their lives. . . .

We have had a great deal of bad news lately from the Far East, and I think it highly probable, for reasons which I shall presently explain, that we shall have a great deal more. Wrapped up in this bad news will be many tales of blunders and shortcomings, both in foresight and action. No one will pretend for a moment that disasters like these occur without there having been faults and shortcomings.

I see all this rolling towards us like the waves in a storm, and that is another reason why I require a formal, solemn Vote of Confidence from the House of Commons, which hitherto in this struggle has never flinched. The House would fail in its duty if it did not insist upon two things, first, freedom of debate, and, secondly, a clear, honest, blunt Vote thereafter. Then we shall all know where we are, and all those with whom we have to deal, at home and abroad, friend or foe, will know where we are and where they are. It is because we are to have a free Debate, in which perhaps 20 to 30 Members can take part, that I demand an expression of opinion from the 300 or 400 Members who will have sat silent.

I am not asking for any special, personal favours in these circumstances, but I am sure the House would wish to make its position clear; therefore I stand by the ancient, constitutional, Parliamentary doctrine of free debate and faithful voting.

Churchill then proceeded to give an account of the war and a defense of his strategic decisions (along with numerous admissions of grave error) far more detailed, substantive, lengthy and candid than any given by George Bush on any topic, at any time, during the last six years. He knew that he could and should continue in the war only if he had the support of the Parliament and his country for his decisions, and that support had to be earned through persuasion and disclosure. It was not an entitlement that he could simply demand.

Unlike our little Churchillian warriors today, the actual Churchill did not seek to stifle criticism or bully anyone into cheering for him by insisting that they would be helping the Enemy if they criticized him. To the contrary, he ended his 1942 address this way:

Therefore, I feel entitled to come to the House of Commons, whose servant I am . . . I have never ventured to predict the future. I stand by my original programme, blood, toil, tears and sweat, which is all I have ever offered, to which I added, five months later, "many shortcomings, mistakes and disappointments." But it is because I see the light gleaming behind the clouds and broadening on our path, that I make so bold now as to demand a declaration of confidence of the House of Commons as an additional weapon in the armoury of the united nations.

And several months earlier, in 1941, Churchill made the point -- in an address to the House of Commons -- that it would be absurd to turn Parliament into a mindless, rubber-stamping body given that parliamentary democracy was what England was fighting for in the war (h/t Sysprog):

The worst that could happen might be that they might have to offer some rather laborious explanations to their constituents. Let it not be said that parliamentary institutions are being maintained in this country in a farcical or unreal manner. We are fighting for parliamentary institutions. We are endeavouring to keep their full practice and freedom, even in the stress of war.

And, quite similarly, there is this letter from Abraham Lincoln, written while a member of Congress in 1848, to William Herndon (h/t FMD). Herndon had argued (echoing the claims from the White House and the likes of Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol today) that the President had the unrestrained power to wage war against Mexico in order to defend U.S. interests regardless of the views of Congress or anyone else -- a view which Lincoln (accurately) found repulsive to the core principles of our political system:

But to return to your position. Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.

Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,--"I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

The view of America as advocated by George Bush and his followers is as antithetical as can be even to the views of the individuals to whom they claim allegiance. They exploit historical events and iconic individuals as tawdry props, and they neither understand them nor actually care about their meaning. They turn them into cheap cartoons -- Churchill! Lincoln! America! -- drained of their actual substance and converted into impoverished, degraded symbols used to promote ideas that are the exact opposite of what they actually embody.

Churchill accomplished exactly that which Bush cannot manage -- namely, he convinced his country that the war he was leading was legitimate and necessary and that confidence in his war leadership was warranted. It's precisely because Bush is incapable of achieving that that he and his followers are now insisting that democratic debate itself over the Leader and the war is illegitimate and unpatriotic. One can call that many things. "Churchillian" isn't one of them. Nor, for that matter, is "American."

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