Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Nixon Syndrome - New York Times

The Nixon Syndrome - New York Times

January 9, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
The Nixon Syndrome

Whether he knew it or not, President Bush was faced with a crucial philosophical choice in the frightening and chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

He could have followed the wise counsel of Edward R. Murrow, who memorably told us, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." But he didn't. He chose instead to follow the disturbing course mapped out by Barry Goldwater, who insisted, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

That choice changed the character of America for the worse, leading (like a character's tragic flaw in an ancient drama) to the mindless invasion and occupation of Iraq; the imprisonment without trial of thousands of so-called terror suspects, who were denied the right to protest their innocence or confront their accusers; the now-infamous torture memo from the Justice Department; the abuses at Abu Ghraib; the reprehensible practice of rendition, in which individuals are kidnapped by U.S. officials and handed over to regimes known to specialize in torture; the creation of super-secret C.I.A. prisons - the dungeons of the 21st century; and, as recently revealed, the president's decision to authorize illegal eavesdropping - spying - on American citizens.

The president has been cavalier about the profound issues embedded in his radical makeover of America. Perhaps he doesn't understand them. As the controversy grew over the warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency, Mr. Bush, apparently annoyed, said at a press conference, "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

Well, Mr. President, one of the great things about democracy American style is that important national issues are always subject to a robust national discussion. And few things are more important than making sure that a president with a demonstrated tendency to abuse the powers of his office is not allowed to lay the foundation for the systematic surveillance of the American people.

For a president - any president - to O.K. eavesdropping on U.S. citizens on American soil without a warrant is an abomination. First, it's illegal - and for very good reasons. Spying on the populace is a giant step toward totalitarianism. In the worst-case scenario, it's the nightmare of Soviet-style surveillance.

Related to that is the all-important matter of the separation of powers, which is the absolutely crucial cornerstone of our form of government - our bulwark against tyranny. An elaborate system of checks and balances (you need a warrant from a court to wiretap, for example) prevents the concentration of too much power in any one branch, or any one person. Get rid of the checks and balances and you've gotten rid of the United States as we've known it.

If President Bush wants to spy on Americans, let him follow the law and get a warrant. He's the president, not the king. The president cannot simply do as he pleases. Richard Nixon unleashed the dogs of domestic surveillance in the 1970's, and that played a major role in the constitutional crisis that traumatized the nation and led to the collapse of his presidency.

Nixon was out of control, so Congress and the courts stepped in. Threatened with impeachment, he resigned his office and left town. Checks and balances.

President Bush argues that the enemies of the United States are so evil and so devious that he is justified in throwing off the legal constraints that might have bound previous presidents - including such important constraints as the ban on warrantless eavesdropping contained in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

If a president thinks a law should be changed, he can go to the American people via Congress and seek such a change. This president gave the back of his hand to FISA, deciding in secret to ignore it.

In doing that, Mr. Bush essentially declared that the checks and balances do not apply to him, that he is above the law, that he knows better than the likes of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton et al.

In doing that, he aligned himself instead with Richard Nixon, who had his own notion of the separation of powers. That notion was best expressed in Nixon's chilling comment:

"When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Reach Out and Touch no One

Reach Out and Touch No One

Doing the math, you've got to figure that the 12 wise men and one wise woman had about 30 seconds apiece to say their piece to the president about Iraq, where vicious assaults this week have killed almost 200 and raised U.S. troop fatalities to at least 2,189.

It must have been like a performance by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which boils down the great plays and books to their essence. Proust is "I like cookies." Othello raps that he left Desdemona "all alona, didn't telephona." "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" condense into "The Idiodity." "Henry V" is "A king's gotta do what a king's gotta do," and "Antony and Cleopatra" is "Never get involved in Middle Eastern affairs."

Beyond taking a class picture ringed around Mr. Bush's bizarrely empty desk - a mesmerizing blend of "Sunset Boulevard," "The Last Supper" and a "Sopranos" ad - the former secretaries of state and defense had to make the most of their brief colloquy with W.

The spectral Robert McNamara might have enlightened on Vietnam: "Didn't understand the culture. Misjudged the opposition. Didn't know when to get out." If he was a fast talker, he could have added: "It's the dominoes. If Iraq falls, then Syria falls, then Lebanon falls, and before you know it, all of Southeast Asia - I mean, the Middle East - will fall."

Melvin Laird only needed to add: "Ditto."

Al Haig's summation would have been a cinch: "I resign. I'm in charge here. I resign - again."

Instead of his good-soldier silence, Colin Powell could have redeemed himself with four words: "I should have resigned."

Madeleine Albright might have succinctly imparted some wisdom from Somalia and Rwanda: "Didn't understand the culture. Misjudged the threat. Didn't know when to get in."

James Baker, Svengali and Sphinx, must have been thinking: "I told your dad not to let you in here. I could tell you how to get of Iraq in 10 minutes, but you're too under the sway of that nutball Cheney to listen."

George Shultz only needed to say: "I have a tiger tattooed on my fanny," and Lawrence Eagleburger could have abridged his thoughts to "I need a smoke. Bad."

It may seem disturbing at first, that with several hundreds of years' worth of foreign policy at his elbows, and a bloody, thorny mess in Iraq, Mr. Bush would devote mere moments to letting some fresh air into his House of Pain.

Sure, he has A.D.D. But he just spent six straight days mountain-biking and brush clearing in Crawford. He couldn't devote 60 minutes to getting our kids home rather than just a few for a "Message: I Care" photo-op faking sincerity?

"We all went into the bubble and came out," one of the wise men noted.

Mr. Eagleburger explained their role as props, saying it was hard to volubly express yourself with a president. "There was some criticism, but it was basically 'You haven't talked to the American people enough.' " Lighting a cigarette on the way out - he'd thrown one in the bushes on the way in - he added the world-weary coda: "We're all has-beens anyway."

Mr. Eagleburger knows the truth. If W. had wanted to really reach out, rather than just pretend to reach out so that his poll numbers would go up, he would have sought advice outside his warped inner circle long ago - including from his own father.

Because W.'s mind is so closed to anybody except yes-men who tell him his policies and wars are slam-dunks, uneasy seasoned mandarins are forced to make a noisy stink. Brent Scowcroft, one of Bush Senior's closest friends, had to resort to the pages of The New Yorker to voice his objections. He ominously said Dick Cheney, his old colleague, was someone he no longer recognized.

You wonder whether the other contemporaries of Cheney and Rummy from Ford, Reagan and Bush I days were thinking the same thing at Thursday's meeting: Why have these guys gone so kooky?

W. is drunk on Cheney Kool-Aid. So he got testy when Ms. Albright pointed out that North Korea and Iran were going nuclear while the U.S. was bogged down in Baghdad. Then, after a quick photo in the Oval, he shooed the old-timers out, letting anyone who wanted to stay talk to the security factotum Stephen Hadley.

Still busy spreading fog over the war, W., Cheney, Rummy and Condi had no time to hear McNamara expound on the fog of war. In the picture, as Ms. Albright cringes, Mr. McNamara looks haunted, unable to escape second-guessing over Vietnam.

The only thing that would have made the photo even more utterly phony was the presence of that vintage warmonger, Henry the K.