September 6, 2006

What I've Been Asking For All Along

As promised, I have a few more thoughts on the President's announcements today.

First, I've never doubted that much of the covert activity, intelligence-gathering, confinement of prisoners, and other controversial parts of the "Global War On Terror" were aimed at real terrorists, at real bad people, people who need to be controlled and interrogated. Some of what the President said today confirmed that, and demonstrated what sorts of things are going on by publicly divulging some details of what's been happening and the kind of people who are being detained and questioned.

No one on the left side of the political spectrum should doubt that these are bad people who mean to do us harm. We as a nation have a right and our government has an obligation to do what is within its power to thwart their objectives. And some of that power is not nice or pretty in its application, but is necessary nonetheless.

Second, I've been saying, for a long time, that while I expect my government to protect me from the bad guys -- by finding them and shooting them if necessary -- I also expect it to do things the right way. My criticism of the Administration has not been that it has been targetting bad guys or based on any love of the people who are on the receiving end of this treatment. It has been based on concerns about the division of powers between our branches of government.

For the first time in quite some time today, Bush made statements that sounded like he understood his role in the government. He is the President, not the dictator. He recognized the role of the military, of covert intelligence agencies, his own office, the Supreme Court, and Congress. And to my tremendous relief, he acknowledged the role of both the Court and Congress in running and protecting our country. His is a powerful position within the government, and rightly so.

Third, I have a hard time deciding, at this point, whether his avowed committment to human rights and constitutional liberties is simply lip service that will be winked at or whether his chastisement in the Hamdan case changed his attitude about those things in any meaningful way. Hamdan has clearly changed his point of view about his relationship with Congress and his ability to unilaterailly exercise power. When a Court of this composition -- as a friend said tonight, "A group of judges so pro-defense that they quiver in their boots" -- nevertheless goes out of its way to lecture the President about exceeding his powers, the President listens carefully. But whether he got the whole message or not is difficult to tell.

Our enemies see us as less than human, that is clear. But this undeniable fact neither gives us the right to reciprocate nor does it mean that it is to our advantage to do so. Rather, I am as convinced now, as ever, that America is held to a different and higher moral standard than its enemies, and we should welcome those exacting expectations. We are not weakened by behaving well. We need not be shackled by our own laws and legal system. We are made of stronger stuff than our enemies have reckoned and we will prevail in the end because of our strength.

So, the President needs to get Congressional authority -- and likely will need to submit to some kind of Congressional oversight -- to have military tribunals provide meaningful and fair trials to our prisoners. This is as it should be.

First of all, we have no reason to believe that the military tribunals will pre-judge these people or give them unfair trials, and we also have little reason to believe that this judicial process will result in the release of dangerous people. Military tribunals, which can hear evidence that due to its sensitive nature cannot be divulged in a standard civilian court, are a reasonable way to deal with evidence as well as security; while I am still not convinced this is the only way trying these men can be handled, it is a reasonable one. The point here is that I believe due process can be afforded in this fashion if the bill that Congress eventually passes addresses that issue in a meaningful way. We have the best justice system in the world in this country and it is gratifying to see the President both submitting to it and finally showing some faith in that system's ability to participate in the governance and protection of the nation.

Secondly, there is no diminishment in the President's powers to have to request this sort of authority from Congress under these circumstances. The panicked five or six days after 9/11 are past us and it is high time that we soberly addressed our position in the world. It is a dangerous world, to be sure, full of enemies and fraught with peril. But it is also not a world where we can only react to what our enemies do; the truth of the matter is that we hold the initiative in this chess game in a variety of theaters of operation and in many respects we hold considerable if not overwhelming advantages. So there is no need for "emergency" action; the point of giving the President the power to act unilaterally in time of war is because there is no time for Congress to deliberate on an emergency issue. The situations we face today permit careful deliberation and thought by our representatives, as well as meaningful and influential participation in that process by the President.

Thirdly, from a results perspective, what we will see happening is going to be functionally the same as if the President had been permitted to exercise these powers unilaterally anyway. He's getting the results he wanted -- and now, he's going to get them in the right way. He's not going to be weidling power and making decisions on his own, or in a military fashion. We are not governed by the military; the military is governed by the political branches of our government, which in turn is controlled by the electorate. This fundamentally democratic system has worked very well in difficult geopolitical sitautions in the past -- the Cold War involved a substantial amount of military, paramilitary, and intelligence operations which were not made public but had tremendous effect, all of which were carried out by the executive branch under Congressional supervision (and occasional intervention) and thereby the goals of efficacy and democracy were both realized.

Fourth, this President has little to fear from submitting to a compliant Congress. I include in that analysis both the current Congress, which is nearly done with its meetings, and the next Congress. I forecast that the Republicans may drop a seat or two in both the House and the Senate, but Republicans will remain in control of both chambers. George Bush will be the first Republican President since (I think) Theodore Roosevelt to have had a Republican Congress for eight years. He's issued one veto in his entire Presidency, and pretty much carries around Congress in his pocket.

So the President has not really lost much on a practical level by going through these steps. But the nation gains immensely. It retains the protection we have enjoyed, and recaptures the forms of liberty and controlled government that distinguish us from virtually every other nation on the globe and in history. If we have a meaningful follow-through on what was presented to us today, this will mark one of the brightest days of the George W. Bush era.

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