Balkinization  

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dictatorship or Democracy?: You Decide

Sandy Levinson

Today's New York Times has an interesting analysis of the response to the Baker-Hamilton report titled "Will It Work in the White House?" I excerpt key parts:

In 142 stark pages, the Iraq Study Group report makes an impassioned plea for bipartisan consensus on the most divisive foreign policy issue of this generation. Without President Bush, that cannot happen....

Assuming he is not ready to go that far, despite some recent signals of flexibility, he faces the more general question of whether he is ready to embrace the spirit of the report — not to mention the drubbing his party took in the midterm elections a month ago — and produce a new approach of his own that amounts to more than a repackaging of his current worldview.

The study group, for instance, calls for direct engagement with Iran and Syria; so far, Mr. Bush has refused. While Mr. Bush has steadfastly resisted a timetable for withdrawal, the report says all combat brigades “not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq” — note the careful use of the conditional — by the first quarter of 2008.

But the real target of the Iraq Study Group was Mr. Bush. ...

Members of the president’s party seemed to be adopting a kind of wait-and-see posture, praising the report for its seriousness and depth as they searched for clues about what Mr. Bush would do.

“I was impressed by the seriousness with which this group reached its conclusions and its plea that the level of partisanship we’ve seen in Iraq be toned down,” said Senator Mitch Mcconnell of Kentucky, who will soon be the Republican leader. But Mr. McConnell cut short any conversation of what Mr. Bush should do. “I’m not going to give the president advice,” he said.

The president spent weeks trying to shape the political climate in which he would receive the report....

Those moves have been aimed at giving Mr. Bush the flexibility he needs to do pretty much whatever he wants. But, meeting with him in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, the commissioners made a pointed appeal for him to give their study greater weight than his own, if only because it has the backing of both parties....

The real question now is whether the report can generate what the panel’s Republican co-chairman, James A. Baker III, called the “tremendous amount of political will” necessary to prod Democrats and Republicans into genuine cooperation — and Mr. Bush into embracing policy prescriptions he thus far has shunned.

As he stood before the press corps Wednesday to unveil the long-awaited report, Mr. Baker, a longtime confidant of the Bush family, was asked if Mr. Bush had the capacity to “pull a 180,” as the report would seem to require. He ducked the question then, but later answered it in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News.

“I don’t know what the president will do,” Mr. Baker said. “But I do know this. I know the president is conflicted by the situation there. I know the president would like to approach this in a bipartisan way and in a manner that would have the support of the American people. Here’s a vehicle to do that.”


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I suggest that this is a description more suitable to a dictatorship (even if we call it a "constitutional dictatorship" than to a genuinely democratic government. Save for supporters of the Bush policy and his vision (such as Bill Kristol or Bart de Palma, who offered an eloquent defense on an earlier thread, whether I agree with it or not), most of the country presumably agrees that the policy is awful unto catastrophic. But we all wait, like supplicants outside the despot's chambers, for word as to, quite literally, who shall live and who shall die. (My particular favorite is the comment by the new Senate minority leader that he's "not going to give the President advice.") I didn't know that Mictch McConnell was so reticent. Perhaps the fact that his wife is held hostage as Secretary of Labor has something to do with it.

But, of course, it doesn't count against the Constitution (or cause us to think of genuine reform) that we are in such a position.

Comments:

As he stood before the press corps Wednesday to unveil the long-awaited report, Mr. Baker, a longtime confidant of the Bush family, was asked if Mr. Bush had the capacity to “pull a 180,” as the report would seem to require. He ducked the question then, but later answered it in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News. “I don’t know what the president will do,” Mr. Baker said. “But I do know this. I know the president is conflicted by the situation there. I know the president would like to approach this in a bipartisan way and in a manner that would have the support of the American people. Here’s a vehicle to do that.”

Mr. Baker is being more than a little arrogant to assume that the closed session work of a handful of Washington insiders somehow represents the consensus plan of the American people. Heck, this plan doesn't even seem to be the plan of Mr. Baker, who has spend the past two days downplaying the efficacy of the so called "diplomatic offensive" called for in this report.

Driving back and forth to court today, I did a quick perusal of the talk radio shows and I hardly heard consensus over the ideas offered in this report on either the left or the right. To the right, this report represents slow surrender, while the anti war left thinks we are not withdrawing quickly enough. However, even the left was questioning the usefulness of negotiating with the folks running Iran and Syria, who are responsible for a great deal of the terrorist murders in Iraq.

There are groups who have come out united in their support for many of the Baker Commission ideas - al Qaeda, the Baathists and the Mahdi Army.

http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/
ACIO-6W9JJT?OpenDocument

Given the divisions among the American people about these suggestions and the unity of our enemies in support of them, I would be exceedingly leery about pursuing many of these ideas if I were the President.

I suggest that this is a description more suitable to a dictatorship (even if we call it a "constitutional dictatorship" than to a genuinely democratic government.

I would suggest that the opposite is the case. The last time I checked, the American people elected Mr. Bush to be CiC to run the war, not an unelected commission of former DC politicians and lobbyists with nary a military expert among them. Very few, if any, of the Democrats who won new seats in Red States providing the Dems with a razor thin majority in Congress campaigned on these suggestions.

In reality, the Baker Commission is yet another in a long line of CYA "pass the buck" efforts used by politicians to deflect responsibility when things go wrong and the voters are unhappy. The product of this commission is worse than most.
 

Actually, I substantially agree with Bart in many ways. There is certainly no reason to take so seriously the Baker-Hamilton Commission (which, of course, includes such a foreign policy/military strategy luminary as Sandra Day O'Connor) as providing the "last word." Where we disagree, of course, is on the substantive merits of the Bush strategy and on the trust we should place in his decisions overall. I am assuming that most of the country no longer does trust Mr. Bush and is desperately looking for a way out, which the Baker-Hamilton Commission appears to provide.

I stick to my guns, though, in saying that a system that appears to rely so completely on the decisionmaking of one person, elected or not, is fairly describable, in at least this aspect, as a "constitutional dictatorship" (with democratic provenance).
 

Professor Levinson:

If you're specifically suggesting that Congress should be able to vote "no confidence," I repeat what I said below:

Congress can already include in its war-funding bills declarations of how the funds shall be used, with the caveat that misuse of funds shall not result in a funding cutoff. If that doesn't constrain the President, then Congress has a legally sound case for impeachment. (If Congress doesn't act upon it, the availability of a "no confidence" vote won't change the matter.)

It seems to me the real problem is that congressional Republicans don't want to constrain the President. But their hands-off approach, which I assume is an attempt to maintain party unity, doesn't make him a dictator nor is it a reason for introducing your suggested reform.
 

I stick to my guns, though, in saying that a system that appears to rely so completely on the decisionmaking of one person, elected or not...

Lots of these arguments are covered in the Anti-Federalist papers. I'm thinking in particular of one letter - sorry, I can't find it - that details how only a handful in government could set the nation to war.
 

"Bart" DePalma, resident of a parallel universe, opines:

Given the divisions among the American people about these suggestions and the unity of our enemies in support of them, I would be exceedingly leery about pursuing many of these ideas if I were the President.

Glenn Greenwald covers this "division" here.

True, there are many that might disagree with the report's recommendations. 60% of them want us out of Iraq. Now (or within a single Friedman, at the very least).

...

I would suggest that the opposite is the case. The last time I checked, the American people elected Mr. Bush to be CiC to run the war, not an unelected commission of former DC politicians and lobbyists with nary a military expert among them. Very few, if any, of the Democrats who won new seats in Red States providing the Dems with a razor thin majority in Congress campaigned on these suggestions.

"Bart" pretends, oblivious to pretty much all consensus, that dissatisfaction with the Iraq war played essentially no part in the "razor thin majority" [sic] that the Democrats won in November's tsunami. Here's some more "good news" for "Bart" and Dubya.

Cheers,
 

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