The Source of America’s Imperial Presidency
The imposingly versatile Garry Wills, Northwestern University historian, political polemicist, sometime philosopher, theologian and church historian, has a new book inspired by liberal disappointment with President Barack Obama, blaming Obama’s faults as well as other U.S. presidential disorders on the atom bomb.
He argues in “Bomb Power” that possession of the bomb — a product of an enormous and a secret scientific undertaking, the Manhattan Project, launched by Franklin D. Roosevelt — has ever since given U.S. presidents an intoxicating degree of unchecked personal power, so that there is “no constitutional check on his actions … [which amounts to] a violent break in our whole governmental system.”
The president came into possession of unique power, which according to Wills has resulted in the American people’s “permanent submission” to a commander in chief with supreme global power.
This strikes me as interesting but completely wrong. It has little or nothing to do with the case of Barack Obama today, who is mainly criticized for his failure to make use of the domestic political power he possesses to achieve the reforms he promised during his campaign for the presidency, thus failing to fulfill the expectations liberals had invested in him because they had convinced themselves that their beliefs were his beliefs.
Mr. Obama promised during the campaign that he would enlarge the war in Afghanistan (the “right war”), while qualifying his promises to remove U.S. troops from Iraq — a policy that today seems, in the conventional Washington (and Baghdad) view, increasingly in doubt.
He kept his promise about Afghanistan. He escalated the U.S. troop presence and widened the mission. Where he has failed is in giving a convincing explanation why this Afghanistan war serves the United States’ interest in its own security, and in the peace and security of Central Asia.
While he has promised to begin troop withdrawals next year, there has been no description of what “victory” is sought. Surely not defeat or surrender of the Taliban. It seems to be that the Kabul government will demonstrate an ability to defend itself without American help. What if that does not occur?
That unfortunately reminds us of Vietnam, where American victory was construed as America’s “Vietnamization” of the war, something that took place in 1973, following negotiations in Paris between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (over South Vietnamese objections).
Vietnamization meant that the United States, weary with the war, abandoned its client government in Saigon to its enemies, whom the South Vietnamese had previously been unable to defeat even with the assistance of a half-million American soldiers.
Vietnamization was accompanied by American assurances that if the North Vietnamese resumed the war to take Saigon, the United States would bomb them — which in the event, Congress forbade. The U.S. had been bombing North Vietnam, without constructive result, for nearly a decade.
To return to Wills’ argument that nuclear weapons have been responsible for a presidential exercise of arbitrary and unchecked power, it has to be said that in Vietnam it ended in failure and American humiliation.
Wills cites the Korean War, in which Washington reacted to an attack that overran American World War II occupation troops in South Korea. That war was another American failure — a stalemate between the North Koreans and a U.S.-commanded U.N. coalition that remains unsettled to the present day.
Wills’ argument continues with various Middle East/Africa interventions (U.S. troops in Lebanon; the intervention under U.N. auspices in Somalia), as well as in the Caribbean, where the U.S. has intervened with regularity for many years, all culminating in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan, with Pakistan and Yemen seeming candidates for future American attentions.
It is impossible to see these all as the responsibility of individual presidents, intoxicated by possession of nuclear power. I see them as developing out of an American millenarianism, kept in check in the past by isolationism and hostility toward imperial Europe, which during World War I underwent a vainglorious globalization under Woodrow Wilson — who believed, literally, that God had entrusted both him and the American nation with missions of peaceful global reform.
That was a half-century before the nuclear bomb. Rather than inspiring war, it inspired the League of Nations, which the U.S. Senate refused to join, and later the U.N.: not the military-industrial state.
Franklin Roosevelt was committed to the Wilsonian mission well before Albert Einstein sent him the fateful letter in which Einstein warned that a nuclear bomb might be feasible and that German physicists might be working to construct one.
That — and Bolshevism, a program of secular utopianism based on sectarian power and ambition, which provoked the Cold War that ensued — are the sources of America’s imperial presidency. And however Barack Obama may eventually be judged, he is today anything but an imperial president.
Visit William Pfaff’s website at www.williampfaff.com.
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