“What we’re seeing today is that that system of checks and balances is now in total response to the Trump presidency and it’s coming from a lot of different directions — it’s coming from Congress, from people in the administration and others who are more openly rejecting what the president is doing,” said former defense secretary Leon Panetta, who was also White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “The concern about that is that it weakens the power of the commander in chief as president.” ~ Washington Post
So tell me, why is Washington’s standard to evaluate presidential performance consistently that the president ought to strengthen the power of the office? No less an authority and personage than David Gergen said in his book that the measure of success for a president is whether he leaves the chief executive’s office stronger than he found it. By that measure, a string of successful presidents would turn the White House into the seat of dictatorship, and ruin the republic.
As it is, we have had a string of presidents one would hardly call successful, and we still have no republic. The president just keeps getting stronger, no matter what else happens in our country’s politics. At least the president appears to be strong.
To show the power of the deep state in our country, consider an example that focuses on the president’s role as commander in chief. George W. Bush started two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defeat – that is, failure to achieve stated goals – in both conflicts did not weaken presidential power, formal or informal. It should have. Instead, the national security state blundered on as before, unable to exercise good judgment in almost anything.
The Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden disclosures illustrate. Instead of communicating that both Manning and Snowden revealed serious problems with our national security apparatus, the same apparatus went after the individuals who brought the bad news. It articulated, via every channel at its disposal, an all-out defense of the way it operates. A few prominent people noted that the way it operates is antithetical to our Constitution, to our traditions, and to our interests. Nevertheless, the state imprisoned one messenger, and exiled the other.
The Constitution’s most obvious stipulation – violated every day – is that war-making power resides with the legislature, not the executive. The president’s role as commander in chief does not alter the Constitution’s plain meaning. His role as commander in chief simply says that our military operates under civilian authority. It does not vest war-making power in the president. The fact that we do not ‘declare’ war any longer does not change the Constitution’s assignment of war making power to Congress.
Nor do resolutions handed down from the national security state take care of the matter. We are about to enter our seventeenth year of warfare, based on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, dropped on Congress and passed just three days after 9/11. That open-ended authorization serves as the legal basis for war into infinity.
Obama boasted he ended both wars launched by his predecessor. He drew down troop strengths in Iraq, reduced operations in Afghanistan during his second term, and turned attention to rapprochement with Iran. Look where we are now. Our armed forces are still fighting, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and numerous other locations we can hardly count, because the wars are secret.
Do empty boasts make a president more powerful, because the state expects us to believe its announcements? Or does swaggering around the world with lectures, warnings, threats, surveillance, drone launched missiles, and bombs out of nowhere just make us weaker? Who wants to cooperate with a nation like that, especially after the nation’s president avows his country has no interest in leadership.
Thus our allies pull away. Our adversaries begin to see we are not as strong as we pretend to be. Who will want to fight with us, when the fight comes? We already saw the so-called Iraq coalition wither into nearly nothing as the Iraq war stumbled to its ignominious conclusion. Now the state’s mouthpieces still talk about coalition forces, but everyone knows what that means. It means our security state wants to pretend it has allies.
Take the recent fighting in Mosul as an illustration of endless, inconclusive war. Three years ago, during summer of 2014, Islamic State rolled into that large city as Iraqi forces fled. Iraqi militias, Iran, the United States, Iraqi Kurdistan, and reconstituted Iraqi regulars all mounted a campaign to retake the city. We saw photographs of tanks in the field, videos of armored personnel carriers on the role, with sounds of rifle fire and diesel engines in the background. Government’s public relations machine delivered gripping news to its constituents back home.
Forces in the field did not consistently act in concert, but the varied forces managed to stay in the field. Islamic State, outnumbered in both people and equipment, held the city for thirty-six months. That does not speak to IS valor as much as it speaks to the difficulty of retaking crowded urban ground with disparate forces that do not cooperate well with each other. Baghdad’s eagerness to declare victory in this battle was manifest. Our government’s eagerness to report victory to all was manifest as well.
In fact, Iraqi and Sunni resentments toward the West, many Sunnis’ drive for radical and ruthless authoritarianism based on religion, their irredentist desire to recover Iraq from Shia and foreign rule: these will not evaporate merely because a variety of opposition forces drove a surprisingly and momentarily successful caliphate out of Mosul. I don’t want to downplay Baghdad’s recent dominion over a new pile of rubble in the north too much. The forces involved – Kurds especially – fought with enough consistency to win the day.
Yet Baghdad leads a rump state, and the day arrives soon when the Kurds will have a state of their own in the north. Where does that place the Sunni forces: the ones totally displaced by the U. S. invasion in 2003, and disbanded in May 2003, just over a month after Baghdad fell? As if the original invasion were not enough, this inexplicable mistake haunts the whole region now, and try as it might, the conquering power in Washington cannot correct it. Sunnis’ motivation to reform and recover what they lost, not to mention to avenge Hussein’s execution in December 2006, is far stronger than U. S. motivation to prevent these outcomes.
Americans are war weary: Sunnis are not. Neither are the Kurds, Turks, Russians, Iranians, Shiites, Alawites, Israelis, Syrians, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or the Al-Nusra Front. To be accurate, it’s hard to tell how war weary the forces fighting for and against Damascus may be at the moment. We only know the war in Syria has not yet ended. The failure of one truce after another shows the groups involved have not given up.
Neither have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, though Washington would be happy if we were to forget about them. Aside from these conflict-ridden regions, Kiev, Donbass, Cairo, Islamabad, Tehran, the entire north African coastline, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the emirates and the rest of the Persian Gulf will have to take care of themselves. Americans have even less motivation to resolve these problems, or even pay enough attention to think about our interests there. That does not prevent our secret drones and less secret navy and air forces from staying involved, but these are endless, pointless wars with no explanation, no strategy, and no other purpose than to keep the national security state in powerful and continuous operation.
So that brings us back to the president. The chief executive, more or less willing to trade away power for prestige in return, has customarily ceded a fair amount of latitude to the deep state, in order to exercise general foreign policy oversight and represent the United States abroad. The president looks powerful as long as he does not cross the national security state. For a long time, since Eisenhower at least, Americans on the whole appear content with this arrangement. Only a few public voices, such as that of Ron Paul, have suggested that citizens ought to be more suspicious and vigilant about the deep state’s power.
The amazing thing about the advent of Trump’s administration is that Trump does not appear to appreciate this accommodation among the White House, the national security state, the media, and the people who fund the state. Trump distrusts the national security state because he senses it can bring him down, but he has no idea how to plan or prosecute long-running conflicts with a sprawling security apparatus that nominally answers to him. He cannot think outside his own ego.
The security apparatus, for its part, proceeds slowly if it does not perceive a direct threat. Its vigorous response to Manning and Snowden indicate how it behaves when it does apprehend danger. It rouses and protects itself on every front in that case. Otherwise it is happy to operate in the background. In fact, secrecy is its primary value.
To finish this survey of presidential power, and how it interacts with other governmental institutions, let’s return to the question posed at the outset. Why do we set a standard of success for presidents that focuses on how much an individual occupant of the office strengthens the presidency? To put the question another way, how would we respond if we heard a presidential candidate campaign for the White House in order to reduce the president’s powers? That would induce citizens to consider what happens if we try to reconfigure federal authority, to adhere more faithfully to the Constitution’s vision.
Voters might react skeptically to that proposal. Do you want to restore power to a Congress that hardly functions, a legislature already so weak it does not even recognize how much authority it has abdicated? Critics of governmental authority might agree we need a new vision, with leadership to go in a new direction. Yet even partial agreement about major change is famously difficult to realize. We do not need artful explanations to understand why the ocean’s surface shows such turmoil, while the deep state persists.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake writes that Congress ought to assume more responsibility, that the current unsettled state over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue offers a chance for Congress to resume traditional roles. We’ll see. I’ll bet the security state maintains its secret, privileged positions in government’s underground plumbing, until the country loses a major war. Then we will see competition for power among institutions and individuals that makes the infighting in Trump’s White House look pacific.
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