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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Wonk Stuff: Authority as an End in Itself Regardless of Outcome
Topic: For policy wonks...

Wonk Stuff: Authority as an End in Itself Regardless of Outcome

Glancing through what that NYU journalism professor and big-time author Eric Alterman has to say on Wednesday, May 24, on his MSNBC web log, that day you would see Alterman quoting Andrew Bacevich.

Who's he? Well, Bacevich was born in Normal, Illinois, so he is, by default, or by birth, a normal person. And Normal is a real American place, even if Mitsubishi Motors North America now has their big factory there. Bacevich attended West Point, fought in the Vietnam War, and then had a twenty-year military career that ended in 1992. Now he's a professor of history at Boston University. That's all in the normal range.

But do normal people say this about how the troika of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, the three key architects of current war (no, George Bush didn't think it up all by himself), felt about what happened on September 11, 2001, in New York and at the Pentagon? This is how he assumes they were thinking that day -
Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, it was terrible. But by God, this was a disaster that could be turned to enormous advantage. Here lay the chance to remove constraints on the exercise of American military power, enabling the Bush administration to shore up, expand, and perpetuate U.S. global hegemony. Toward that end, senior officials concocted this notion of a Global War on Terror, really a cover story for an effort to pacify and transform the broader Middle East, a gargantuan project which is doomed to fail. Committing the United States to that project presumed a radical redistribution of power within Washington. The hawks had to cut off at the knees institutions or people uncomfortable with the unconstrained exercise of American power. And who was that? Well, that was the CIA. That was the State Department, especially the State Department of Secretary Colin Powell. That was the Congress.
And so they did. Under Porter Goss the CIA was purged of anyone unwilling to provide only that intelligence that supported the administration's position. You supported the concept of how things were that the White House had, or you were gone. The new guy, Hayden, now inherits a neutered and compliant organization after Goss did the dirty work and really couldn't stay - his work was done at a high cost to morale, and "hatchet men" of course don't have the skill set to rebuild the organization into something more obedient. It's a narrow talent.

Of course Colin Powell was neutered in place, cut out of discussions and decisions, and Condoleezza Rice took his place at State, to bend the diplomats to the will of the policy makers. There had been many a tale of mid-level State Department people, asked for their analysis of how things were going in Iraq, sending back cables that things weren't going well and could be getting worse. They were forced out, or reassigned to Portugal or wherever. Under Rice there'd be no more of that.

Congress, with both houses firmly in control of the president's party, didn't need to be jerked around that much, but they got those background briefings on the small drone planes full of nasty chemicals and biological agents heading for Miami, and tightly edited versions of what the CIA had churned out, if they were thinking of balking at starting our first preemptive war. And the Democrats were not much of a problem - all you had to do was ask if they really wanted to be on the side of the terrorists who want to kill us all, or whether they thought Saddam Hussein was a good man. Raise questions and that's what the public would think, helped along by Fox News. It was a classic trap, and just about every major Democrat is still in it, or thinks they are. That's where the New York senator who would be the next president, Hillary Clinton, is now - supporting the war. What choice does she have? She can't say, now, that back then she was a just a silly woman who was manipulated by information she wasn't smart enough to see was rigged. No one votes for anyone who admits that. So congress was cut off at the knees, and rather easily.

The historian Andrew Bacevich is concerned with the "radical redistribution of power within Washington" in regard to what the war was really about - not terror around the world, not some sort of justice or revenge for what happened at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, not about bringing democracy and Wal-Mart to Baghdad, and not that much about securing oil reserves. It was about power, as he puts it, about securing US "global hegemony" - attaining the position in the world where no one can tell us what to do or what not to do, where no laws that apply to others apply to us, nor do any treaties. So in an odd way it all was about freedom, after all. The freedom to do what we want no matter what anyone thinks. That may be the real core of what the neoconservatives and their Project for the New American Century was about. All else - Iran, Iraq, Syria, this war, that war, and how we wage each and all - is just detail.

So the aim of it all - the nation's plan - became the unconstrained exercise of American power, not for anything in particular (the rubes would buy anything proposed), but for the power itself. Think of it as meta-policy, or if you will, policy about policy. Systems people deal all the time with meta-data, the high-level data describing the actual data. Same sort of thing.

And it led to people like Thomas Freidman of the New York Times arguing we had to go to war, just to show we would - maybe Iraq was the wrong target entirely but it didn't matter. Freidman argued we couldn't appear weak, or passive, in this awful world. With that sort of thing who needs Fox News?

The interesting thing is the domestic mirror of the foreign policy that is not really policy at all. Just as militarily and diplomatically it doesn't much matter just what we do so long as whatever we do establishes we can do whatever it is and no one can stop us, it doesn't seem to matter whether how the nation is governed domestically as the real effort is to establish that the administration can do what it wishes and no one can limit the administration. All else is just detail.

There's an interesting discussion of that here from Kevin Drum, with this at its core -
This is actually my Grand Unified Theory of Bush. Pundits keep trying to figure out just what it is that makes Bush so different from other presidents, but most of them start by trying to figure out what he values. For example, maybe he's far more dedicated to hardline conservative ideology than any other president? That seems reasonable at first glance, but even a cursory look at the evidence turns up way too many exceptions for this to account for his record.

Pure, ruthless political calculation? There's plenty of that, but it really doesn't explain things like No Child Left Behind, the Iraq war, or his immigration policy.

Pandering to the Christian right? Nah. In fact, Bush's most striking feature in this regard is his cynical willingness to promise the Christian right the moon and then deliver almost nothing. They're right to be pissed off at him.

Unbridled fealty to business interests? That's probably the closest to the truth, but what about Sarbanes-Oxley or McCain-Feingold?

... So what is it that makes Bush so different? Just this: until Bush they also all cared about serious policy analysis. This was obviously more striking in some (Clinton) than in others (Reagan), but they all paid attention to it and it informed their actions.

But not Bush. He's subject to the same stew of competing interests and factions as any other president, but what truly makes him unique is what's missing: a respect for policy analysis. After eight months of working in the Bush White House, John DiIulio reported that "the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking."

Paul O'Neill described Bush in cabinet meetings as "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." A senior White House official told Ron Suskind that the Bush White House is "just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. It's depressing." The meltdown at FEMA, the war with the CIA for being insufficiently hawkish, the lack of a serious plan for Social Security privatization, the staffing of postwar Iraq with inexperienced ideologues - all of these things have the same root cause: a belief that ideas are all that matter.
So the unconstrained exercise of executive power, not for anything in particular (the rubes would buy anything proposed), but for the power itself, is the idea that matters - establishing a domestic "radical redistribution of power within Washington" - a domestic homogony if you will. This would not be the unconstrained exercise of American power around the world, but the unconstrained exercise of executive plenary power. It really doesn't matter just what you do. What matters is fighting hard to establish the idea that you can do whatever it is you do and no one can stop you. It the local version of the global big idea.

Thus you have the warrantless spying on Americans business - saying yes, there is a law that forbids that, and yes it was broken on purpose, and yes, it continues to be broken, but the law doesn't really apply if you think of the constitution a certain way, and you're all wimps who can't do a thing about it anyway, so accept your role. You are just children who don't have the will, nor obviously the power, to do anything meaningful other than to agree with daddy. Just as we have pretty much said that to all the nations of the world, even our allies, that's the message to congress. The seven hundred fifty presidential signing statements explaining how what congress passed is fine, but in the real world of adults don't mean much, is part of the message. As for the courts? Just argue they really have no jurisdiction over executive decisions, or invoke the "state secrets" thing so they have to back off. No problem.

Of course things fall apart as actually governing is a bore and not seriously attempted. Nothing works out because no one planned? Details. Beside the point. FEMA a mess as the next hurricane season begins? Boring. Baghdad burning. Yeah, so? Think of the big picture.

For those of us who live in the real world, this is a bit frustrating. We pay taxes for this? We don't live in a theoretical world where it's important to establish a condition in which no one can question the country or the president. It's nice and all that, but some things still need attention - the economy, education, healthcare and health insurance, this immigration mess, energy costs, and all the rest. The White House and the neoconservative crowd may find all that just detail, but that's where most of us live. We like to call it reality. Yeah, it's boring.

But the administration's meta-policy actions can be just irritating. Yes, the president's poll numbers, the approval ratings, are about as low as those of Richard Nixon when he resigned, and his base is angry and Republicans running for office don't want him around on their campaign trails, and are opposing him on issue after issue in congress. But the president has to do the power thing and remind them he's the boss, the daddy, "the decider" - so on a Friday night (May 19) the administration puts on a little show of who's boss and has the FBI raid the office of a congressman. This is the first time in our history the executive branch has ever done that. It's a clear warning. This president is not like any other before. He doesn't give a hoot about this co-equal branches of government crap. Know the FBI is outside the door, and the FBI reports to the president. As does the IRS, and all sort of agencies that can make things bad for those who misbehave.

Of course the warning was tempered by the fact the congressman in question, William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, is a Democrat, accused of various payola schemes somehow involving Africa. And they have him on tape taking money as a bribe, and they found nine thousand of the marked bills in his freezer, so who's going to publicly protest a little raid on his office documents? You get the message and shut up. Such a thing has never been done before but times have changed.

Initially the story had been spun in the press as proof the Democrats were just as corrupt as the Republicans, and that got some traction until people started think about it. Abramoff ran a criminal enterprise that involved scores of major Republican politicians, the "Duke" Cunningham scandal sucked in the number three guy at the CIA and may involve Goss, the former director, Senator Frist, majority leader, may have done funny things with selling stock and insider information, and so on an so forth. Jefferson was a crook, but a freelancer, and not even slick - cash in the freezer in the kitchen offers no returns, nor does it accrue value. What was he thinking. Amateur.

But since the raid the unexpected has happened. The children don't seem to know their place, and, in fact, are saying they're not children. They're saying the executive branch just can't do this - legislative workspace is constitutionally off-limits to the Justice Department. Uppity kids.

Wednesday, May 24, the uproar was covered by the Washington Post here and Associated Press here -
In rare, election-year harmony, House Republican and Democratic leaders jointly demanded on Wednesday that the FBI return documents taken in a Capitol Hill raid that has quickly grown into a constitutional turf fight beyond party politics.

"The Justice Department must immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

After that, they said, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana must cooperate with the Justice Department's bribery investigation against him.

The leaders also said the Justice Department should not look at the documents or give them to investigators in the Jefferson case.

The developments capped a day of escalating charges, demands and behind-the-scene talks between House leaders and the Justice Department that ended with no resolution, according to officials of both parties.

House officials were drafting a joint resolution frowning on the raid. And Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., announced a hearing next week titled, "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
The message backfired. It's akin to our "shock and awe" and liberation of Iraq more than three years ago - instead of being awed the locals were pissed, and they keep saying their liberation looks like our occupation to them. We say we made things better, and they see a civil war, little power, not much drinkable water and sewage in the streets. They're not buying the message.

In the Jefferson business here, Pelosi said Jefferson should resign from the Ways and Means committee. He refused and filed a motion asking the federal judge in the case to order the FBI to return the material it seized from his office.

But that's minor stuff now -
Hastert, Pelosi and several other leaders of both parties in the Senate say the weekend raid violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine.

"These constitutional principles were not designed by the Founding Fathers to place anyone above the law," Hastert and Pelosi said. "Rather, they were designed to protect the Congress and the American people from abuses of power, and those principles deserve to be vigorously defended."
It wasn't supposed to work out this way - "Hastert on Tuesday complained directly to Bush that the raid violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine."

And the doctrine? See Matthew Yglesias here -
I know this is an out of season remark and all good liberals should be both distancing themselves from corrupt Rep. William Jefferson and mocking the GOP leadership for suddenly taking issue with the problem of executive branch overreach under circumstances that appear designed to make it easier for congressmen to take bribes, but Dennis Hastert and the other congressional leaders are right on the merits here.

There's a reason why security for Congress (and the Supreme Court) is provided neither by the Secret Service, nor by the FBI, nor by the DC Police Department, but rather by a special Capitol Police Department (or Supreme Court PD for the SCOTUS). This is also why the Constitution stipulates that members "shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place." There's a real separation of powers principle at stake here; the executive branch is not supposed to be charged with policing the behavior of the members of other branches of government. I'll shed no tears for Jefferson, but this is not unlike if the Bush administration were to use an illegal secret wiretap to catch an actual terrorist.

Now, of course, the flipside of this dynamic is that the legislative branch is supposed to police its own members. The House can vote to expel people for misconduct. The House has an ethics committee precisely because it's supposed to police its members. When push comes to shove in separation of powers cases, the executive always has the preponderance of power on its side. The only way to maintain the privileges of the Congress is for public opinion to support Congress. That's simply not going to happen in this instance because Hastert and the rest of the leadership have made it eminently clear that they're not going to keep corruption in check if left to their own devices. Virtually nobody respects Congress as an institution, or the congressional leadership as individuals at this point, and nobody should. So you get what we had here last week; I don't like it any more than Hastert does, but it wouldn't have happened if he'd been doing his job.
It's complicated. Or it's about the right of the president to have his agencies keep congress in line.

And late in the day, this -
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI, which is seeking to determine his role in an ongoing public corruption probe into members of Congress, ABC News has learned from high level official sources.

Federal officials say the information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government.

Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes.

The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff who reportedly has provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government.

The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time.
Hastert shouldn't have complained to the president personally the day before? No, just a coincidence.

Okay, the issue is authority. Sometimes daddy has to assert his authority, even if he's wrong, just because authority is important. Everyone knows that. This may be "a radical redistribution of power within Washington" as the historian from Boston calls it, but it's all family dynamics.

There is that funny, minor movie, Matilda, directed by Danny DeVito, and the father's line in the film, disciplining his grade school daughter - "I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're little. And there's nothing you can do about it." He says that a lot. It doesn't work out so well for him.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, the very first line...

It's too bad there is so much the government should be doing. But we get this.

Posted by Alan at 23:23 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006 06:44 PDT home

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