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How They Got Their Bloody Way

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Antonin Kratochvil/VII
Residents of Basra fleeing the city during the invasion of Iraq, March 30, 2003

Garry Wills does not tell us which came first in the conception of his new book—baffled wonder that American presidents got away with going to war in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq on their own say-so? Or the moment in late 2008 when then Vice President Dick Cheney reminded viewers watching Fox News of the extraordinary authority conceded to American presidents since the invention of the Bomb?

Cheney put his finger on a core truth about the modern presidency. Only the president can order the use of a nuclear weapon on an enemy he identifies, at a moment he chooses, for reasons he finds adequate. This power is not only theoretical; to give it practical effect the president is always accompanied by an aide carrying a briefcase containing the authorization codes without which no American nuclear weapon can be armed for use.

Cheney has a long history as a champion of presidential power. There is not much he thinks a president cannot do, and his attitude is widely shared by modern Republicans, who have given it the dignity of a theory with a name—the unitary executive. But strip away the persiflage, Democrats say, and we’ve seen the unitary executive before. It grants every president what Richard Nixon thought he had—a free hand in any matter where national security was at stake, and he did mean free. “When the president does it,” Nixon explained to aides during the Watergate crisis, “it’s not a crime.”

Democrats didn’t let Nixon get away with it then and they don’t want to let modern Republicans get away with it now. But on the core point that Cheney made to Fox News there is not much argument. The president has been conceded life-and-death authority over use of the Bomb. “He doesn’t have to check with anybody,” said Cheney.

It is Wills who places the emphasis on Cheney’s words. For him, this is the crux. A long book might be written about authority for nuclear use, listing many limits and qualifications, but in the end such a book would go along with Cheney. American presidents, and the leaders of other nations in their turn, acquired immense power at once from the invention of the Bomb, and expanding power later to manage the elaboration of ever-swifter and more accurate delivery systems for it.

It does not stop there. Wills argues that the “world of perpetual emergency” created by the power of the Bomb presses many other authorities on the presidency, of which the most significant is control of information. Restricting knowledge of the development of the Bomb was rule one of the man who managed its invention, General Leslie Groves. He wanted the scientists to “stick to their knitting,” make the gadget work, but let others decide what to do with it. President Roosevelt knew little about the Manhattan Project and Vice President Truman knew nothing until he was briefed, none too promptly, after the death of Roosevelt. Keeping the primal secret, Dean Acheson noted at the end of the war, spawned “a separate state, with…thousands of secrets.”

It took less than a decade for the separate state to evolve into the National Security State, a vast apparatus for “defense” that threatened to replace business as the business of America. Wills identifies twenty-five separate milestones along the way, beginning with the reorganization of World War II intelligence organizations. His brisk history identifies half a dozen key speeches and articles, the passage of several laws, the creation of new governmental offices to manage matters of war and peace, the writing of treaties, the first forays into clandestine intelligence activities—all of it shaped by a global political rivalry with the Soviet Union, made potentially lethal by the fact of the Bomb and its progeny. The milestones in Wills’s capsule history of the cold war are all familiar but his argument is new and important.

There have been plenty of books about the Bomb. What sets Bomb Power apart is the object of Wills’s concern. It is not the all-too-familiar horror of Armageddon that troubles him, but a generally overlooked side effect—the peremptory rewriting of the United States Constitution driven by the exigencies of nuclear weaponry. “The national Security State,” he remarks, “is in permanent constitutional crisis.” What he means is that presidents in the name of national security have taken unto themselves an ever-expanding range of powers that are not granted, and in some cases are explicitly prohibited, by the Constitution. Starting at the top are the de facto power to “declare” or wage war, reserved by the Constitution for Congress; to decide what information is secret, who gets to know about it, and how much they get to know; to enter into foreign alliances and agreements with little or no oversight; to suspend constitutional rights by executive order (as Roosevelt did when he interned Japanese-Americans during World War II); to ignore laws enacted by Congress in whole or in part by declaration of intent to do so in “signing statements” and to spend money without, or contrary to, congressional authorization.

Wills does not argue that the assumption of these various rights or powers all followed the arrival of the Bomb on the American political stage. Presidential power was the subject of much debate during the Constitutional Convention, where a lively fear of tyranny prompted adoption of numerous checks on a president’s freedom to act. No provision of the Constitution is clearer than the one reserving the right to declare war to Congress, and none has been stretched, finessed, or violated more often, beginning with President Jefferson’s decision in 1801 to inform Congress that he was sending a naval force to attack the Barbary pirates on the shores of Tripoli. Perhaps the best-known, and the most often cited, abrogation of the Constitution by executive order came early in the Civil War when President Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus. The suspension seems inevitable in retrospect; were Confederate prisoners to be given access to lawyers and courts to challenge their detention? Later presidents have seized on this precedent and run with it, asserting the right, in Wills’s view, to “give orders for anything they want.”

Over the years presidents have wanted a lot of things. Confronted by Iranian demands for ransom of American hostages, Jimmy Carter granted himself access to emergency economic funds to make the payoff. In like manner, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Kennedy created the Peace Corps, both by executive order. Other presidents were blocked, as Harry Truman was when he wanted to break a railroad strike by drafting workers into the army in 1946 and when he wanted to nationalize steel mills to end another strike in 1952.

But Wills has not gone to all this trouble to give Nixon and Truman a knuckle-rapping. It is the extraordinary range of powers asserted by George W. Bush that worries him. Bush and Cheney seemed to know immediately how to wrest advantage from failure. The dust was still settling over lower Manhattan when Bush declared that the United States was “at war” with the al-Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. Naming his response a “war on terror” was not merely a PR officer’s turn of phrase signaling resolution. War is a legal term. By using it Bush assumed the full panoply of extraordinary powers wielded by other presidents in previous wars. At the same time he made himself a “wartime president,” thereby placing a heavy requirement on the political opposition to rally round and abandon partisanship for the good of the country.

Bush used his “wartime” powers to take many bold initiatives, and he used his authority over the classification of information to keep what he did secret. American and international law were overthrown or turned inside out by kidnapping persons of interest on foreign soil (“extraordinary rendition”), surveilling American citizens without court warrants required by law, imprisoning American citizens without legal charge, establishing secret prisons in foreign countries under secret agreements promising no one yet knows what, holding prisoners in legal limbo at Guantánamo Bay, repudiating the Geneva Conventions, and violating American tradition and law by authorizing the torture of prisoners.

But the most important of Bush’s initiatives were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, acts of precisely the kind of war that the Constitution stipulates may be declared only by Congress. No stretching of law or equity is required to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in hot pursuit of the criminals who had attacked the United States, but what justified the invasion of Iraq? Saddam Hussein had not threatened (rhetoric aside) or attacked the United States or its allies, no international body had authorized resort to war, and Congress had not declared war.

What Congress did at President Bush’s behest was to pass a joint resolution in October 2002 built mainly on a chain of frightening ifs—if Iraq was in fact “actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability,” and if Iraq succeeded in these efforts, and if Iraq attacked the United States with nuclear weapons, or if Iraq gave them to terrorist organizations, and if the terrorists used them, then “the extreme magnitude of harm that would result” would justify preemptive resort to military attack. Congress lacked the presence of mind to question the chain of ifs and voted not unanimously but still overwhelmingly to grant President Bush the authority “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to…defend the national security of the United States.”

The administration’s relentless banging of the drum for war was one reason Congress went along. Fear of being thought weak, thinking that the President must know something, panic aroused by the frightening ifs, the desire to pay someone back for the pain inflicted by September 11, the euphoria of the crowd—doubtless all played a part in Congress’s supine delivery of what was demanded. Wills rejects the many explanations for one. “The main reason is the Bomb,” he writes. In the crunch, Wills believes, Congress will always conclude that the Bomb is too dangerous to mess with, and defer to the one official who might know something when the rest of us don’t.

It is “the Bomb” in general that gives latitude to presidents, in Wills’s view, but in the case of Iraq it was fear of a specific bomb being hammered together in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear smithy that smothered doubts in Congress. No American president ever let out that he knew something more clearly or confidently than Bush and Cheney did. What’s surprising is how well it worked. The history of the cold war had been one scary development after another. The “bomber gap” of the early 1950s, the “missile gap” of the later 1950s, the first-strike capacity promised by Soviet missiles with multiple warheads, and the illegal Soviet radar arrays that could guide an anti-ballistic missile system all threatened “strategic breakout”—a sudden change in the military balance of terror, plunging the United States into peril between one day and the next. A lot of new hardware was developed over the decades but no breakout followed. Inevitably, threat inflation led to threat exhaustion; it was difficult in the latter years of the cold war to get anybody worked up.

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