Ivan Eland: Disregarding Democracy

By Ivan Eland

In the run-up to the mid-term elections, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks about U.S. national security policy once again point out the Bush administration’s haughtiness and disdain for checks on executive power.

“You cannot make national security policy on the basis of that [election outcomes],” declared Cheney. “It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter, in the sense that we have to continue the mission [in Iraq] … and that is what we are doing.” No matter what the outcome of the elections, U.S. policy in Iraq will go “full steam ahead,” according to Cheney. Apparently, U.S. public opinion on the most important issue of this administration’s tenure doesn’t count.

Similarly, the Bush administration has also decided to ignore Iraqi public opinion. Opinion polls in Iraq indicate that a large majority of people wants a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals. If the main goal of the U.S. invasion and occupation was to set up a democracy in Iraq, shouldn’t the administration pay more heed to the wishes of the Iraqis? Yet the administration refuses to even consider a “phased withdrawal” as an option.

Cheney’s rhetoric may be designed merely as a political move: to throw red meat to the right-wing base to increase its turn-out for the elections. It’s conceivable the administration could reverse its policy in Iraq after the election returns are in. Yet the possibility that the remarks were only for show dimmed when President Bush said that he wanted both Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, architects of the Iraq debacle, to serve until the end of his term. Even if Cheney’s remarks are regarded as pre-election bravado, however, the rhetoric is stunning from an elected leader of a free, democratic country.

Of course, such words are only a continuation of the administration’s chutzpah on the expansion of executive power. The Bush administration, which should have been red-faced after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, successfully argued that Congress should continue to allow the torture of prisoners and the suspension of their habeas corpus rights. When the administration’s kangaroo military tribunals were declared unconstitutional, it merely turned to Congress to approve them. In the 1970s, disclosures of domestic spying by intelligence agencies brought a public outcry and congressionally imposed restraints. Today, after exposure of a clearly unconstitutional National Security Agency program for domestic spying without a warrant, the administration, instead of being embarrassed or fearing impeachment, brazenly wants Congress to enshrine the practice into law.

This lack of shame in authorizing bad and unconstitutional government behavior is rooted in an imperial presidency, which will linger long after the current occupant is gone. The next president, whether Democratic or Republican, will inherit a dangerous precedent: the executive branch trampling on the Constitution and the checks and balances therein. The next president could easily use the precedent to further expand presidential powers. This pattern has occurred throughout U.S. history, especially during periods of war or crisis, but was especially pronounced during the long-lasting Cold War. Now that we have what promises to be an equally long or longer “war on terror,” we can expect the ever-expanding executive power to once again accelerate. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is only the first installment of that likely future.

The creation of empire destroyed the Roman Republic slowly from within. As its foreign conquests militarized Roman policy, power passed from the peoples’ assembly to the Senate to the dictator to the emperor. In the United States, “home of the free and the brave,” we somehow believe a similar usurpation of the republic could never occur. Yet it is already underway.

-Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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