Monday, December 31, 2012

Iran-Contra and the poisonous legacy of excessive Presidential power

The late Theodore Draper is one of my favorite historians. He researched the Iran-Contra affair extensively and wrote a lot about its longer-term implications.

In The Constitution in Danger New York Review of Books 03/01/1990 issue, he wrote about Old Man Bush's decision to invade Panama in 1989:

There was something about the intervention that made it a peculiarly presidential affair. President Bush behaved as if he were conducting a personal vendetta against Noriega. All that seemed to matter was that Noriega should be removed, as if the source of all the trouble in Panama were concentrated in one man. The administration and the press even gave the impression that all was lost if [Panama's military governor Manuel] Noriega escaped, all won if he did not.

Months before, Bush had said that the quarrel was solely with Noriega, not with the Panama Defense Forces. In his press conference on December 21, 1989, the day after the invasion, Bush confessed, "I've been frustrated that he’s been in power this long - extraordinarily frustrated." All that mattered, Bush added, was that "they would get rid of him and recognize a democratically elected government, [and] we could go back to more normalized relations."

We may yet hear that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt set the precedents for presidential initiatives of this kind. Compared to what they faced, however, Noriega’s threat to the national security of the United States was laughable. If the use of armed force should be reserved for a serious threat to the country, as we have long been led to believe, there was no such threat in Panama.

To use an armed invasion to kick out a goon the US had previously subsidized is to deaden our sensibilities to the havoc of war, big or little. [my emphasis]
His focus in that article was on the drastic claims for Presidential power made by various players in the Iran-Contra affairs. He doesn't mention it in this article, but Dick Cheney was responsible for the minority report in the Iran-Contra Congressional investigation, the report authored by Cheney's close associate David Addington. It is considered the first major elaborate of Cheney's theory of the Unitary Executive which became a basis (or excuse) for the lawlessness of his Presidential Administration fronted by George W. Bush. In 2006, Al Gore suggested this theory "ought to be more accurately described as the unilateral executive." (In Martin Luther King Day address, Gore compares wiretapping of Americans to surveillance of King Raw Story 01/16/2012)

Draper's warnings are even more striking now than when he wrote them:

The unfinished business of the Iran-contra affairs still haunts us. It reappears every time the President decides to take some critical action in foreign policy on his own.1 We have barely begun to face the issue, with the result that some Iran-contra variant is bound, sooner or later, to recur.

The Iran-contra affairs amounted to more than good plans gone wrong or even bad plans gone wildly wrong. They were symptomatic of a far deeper disorder in the American body politic. They were made possible by an interpretation of the Constitution which former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North thought gave them a license to carry on their secret operations in the name of the President, without regard for any other branch of the government.2 One would not ordinarily think of Poindexter and North as authorities on the power of the presidency in foreign affairs. Yet, to justify their actions, they held forth on just this constitutional issue. A highly dubious theory of a presidential monopoly of foreign policy had filtered down to them. Their reasons reflected a school of thought that calls into question the constitutional foundations of this country.
Draper quotes James Madison from a 05/13/1798 letter to Thomas Jefferson about the danger for abuse of power in foreign policy:

The management of foreign relations appears to be the most susceptible of abuse of all the trusts committed to a Government, because they can be concealed or disclosed, or disclosed in such parts and at such times as will best suit particular views; and because the body of the people are less capable of judging, and are more under the influence of prejudices, on that branch of their affairs, than of any other. Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.
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