The terrorist coup of September 11 set the scene for the resurgence of an imperial presidency. This was initially concealed by Bush’s dithering on the day itself. Yet his first words insisted that the nation was at war and that reprisals would be visited not only on the perpetrators but on the states which had backed them. It soon became clear that the Bush White House was taking advantage of the shock at what had happened to demand global ‘war powers’ and the financial and constitutional means to employ them. In less than 48 hours NATO was persuaded to invoke, for the first time ever, Article 5 and consequently to give the US commander in chief huge scope to act in its name. The Senate took only a little longer unanimously to back the President’s declaration of war against an unnamed enemy and for Congress to place a $40 billion war chest at his disposal. When the Senate and House of representatives passed the anti-terrorism legislation requested by the administration in October many legislators complained that they had had no opportunity even to read the complex legislation they were voting on.
Even before the new order could be annointed by Congressional votes and orations it was clear that only the President of the United States could fill the hole that yawned. For an unforgettable moment the Empire trembled as an abyss opened, the sun stopped in the darkened sky and the most powerful state in history was paralysed by the suicidal and murderous audacity of nineteen youths. Nowhere in the world–save perhaps TV-less Afghanistan–did anyone doubt that something fundamental had happened and that it happened everywhere. The void had to be filled and, for better or worse, Bush stepped into a new role.
What has now happened raises the power of the president by a quantum leap. It restores an imperial potency to the presidency equal to–or even exceeding–that of the Reagan era. Bush’s authority and freedom of action today is certainly far greater than that enjoyed by his father on the eve of the Gulf War. The imperial presidency has been struggling to be born for some time. Indeed in some respects Bush’s imperial White House is simply continuing the policies of his predecessors. But it would be wrong to see the post-September 11 Bush regime as essentially a ratcheting up of the Clinton policy, commensurate with the newly-perceived dimensions of the threat. Everything suggests that a watershed has been been passed. Bush is far stronger than Clinton, essentially because he faces virtually no opposition. While Clinton was unrelentingly pilloried and opposed by a fairly effective Republic Congressional majority, Bush now has the Democrats eating out of his hand. On September 14-15 only Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Oakland) voted against the emergency package. Congress may later wish to challenge Bush’s chosen strategy or target but their resolution gives them only scant leverage–and only a few are likely to hold him even to those broadly-construed limits.
The Clinton administration claimed and exercised a right of unilateral action against a variety of enemies. Madeleine Allbright explained: ‘If we have to use force it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.’ Yet the record of the indispensable nation in the nineties was not a good one. The issue of nuclear disarmament was neglected. The Russians were not engaged in this or any other positive way, and instead NATO was enlarged to encircle it. In the absence of an agreement between Moscow and Washington the secondary nuclear powers did nothing and India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices. Repeated bombardment of Iraq did more to weaken the United States in the region that to weaken the regime of Saddam Hussein. Rwanda bled. The break up of Yugoslavia dragged on for many years and cost many lives. The failure to use Moscow and the OSCE structure to secure Serb withdrawal from Kosovo at Rambouillet lead to massive bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. But eventually the European allies insisted that Russian mediation to this end be obtained–and it was this rather than the bombing which secured a result. The essential mistake, a fruit of the Cold War mentality, was the attempt to exclude Russia and undermine the Primakov government. (Washington squelched Russian mediation at Rambouillet because, if successful, it would have given Russia an ongoing role in the former Yugoslavia. In the end, Russia had to be given a minor role anyway. Russia had great leverage in Belgrade because Yugoslav forces were highly dependent on Russian oil and military supplies. Washington regarded the Primakov government as a throwback to the Soviet era. In fact, his fall and eventual replacement by Putin led to the bloody Russian onslaught on Chechnya, with only token western protests. The unspoken agreement was that if you let us bomb Serbia we’ll let you bomb Chechnya. Also note that mass opposition to Milosevic, including street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens, took place in 1996 and 1997 and in 2000, but not in the period of western bombardment.)
While Washington might ask the United Nations to rubber stamp its own initiatives, it did not even bother to pay its quota. With the possible exception of Haiti there were very few gains for the US go-it-alone method in the nineties, but an alternative edged into view when the UN successfully orchestrated, with the help of regional powers, the Indonesian military withdrawal from East Timor.
When Bush arrived in the White House its allies were unhappy to discover that the new president, despite his own criticisms of the Clinton-Albright interventions, had an even more vigorous notion of America’s special destiny. He regarded international treaties as scraps of paper (ABM or Kyoto), spurned agreements on land-mines, biological warfare and terrorism or, as in Durban, simply left the room when dialogue was required. Secretary of State Colin Powell seems to have cautioned against some of these decisions but without any success. Sustaining these positions was a determination not to yield an iota of US sovereignty while often expecting this sacrifice of other states.
Because the US was manifestly the injured party on September 11 the situation itself conspired to reinforce Washington’s habitual conduct and assumptions. Washington always insists on running the show but this time virtually no one objected. Such was the shock at the events of September 11 that the European allies announced their prior willingness to back almost any action the US might launch, even before learning what it would be. Perhaps they thought that their swift support would earn them some influence at a later stage and that in its hour of need the Bush presidency would discover the need to jettison the unilateral approach. In a way it has but in the direction of a proliferation of bi-lateralism as the US Secretary of State and Defense Secretary engage in an unceasing round of consultations across several continents, not a new emphasis on NATO and the European allies.
The likelihood that Europe will restrain Washington is further reduced by political factors. The balance in Europe is shifting. The new rightist Italian government wants to ingratiate itself with Washington to enhance its respectability. Berlusconi, the prime minister, probably agrees with Bush anyway. Blair always supports the US and Chirac is also now inclined to, while the German government is in disarray. The Europeans have few troops to spare and are likely to be much less involved then they were (or are) in the Balkans. So this will give them less influence anyway.
In the weeks following September 11 both Powell and Rumsfeld undertook a wide-ranging diplomatic effort directed at key regional players, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. This could be called a multilateral approach, especially since US policy evidently took note of reservations and problems raised by the governments of these states. But the choice of whom to approach, and what advice to accept, still lay with Washington. No attempt was being made to mount a collective operation using the United Nations or some other body.
Thus it is not so much Bush’s personality which should be scrutinised as the president’s new programme and mandate, the situation and character of his machine and the facilities it now enjoys, both domestically and abroad. Behind Bush stand more considerable figures like Cheney and Rumsfeld and behind them a military-industrial complex which begins to see its prayers being answered. It is astonishing to recollect that as recently as September 2 the New York Times ran a headline: ‘Dogfight for Dollars on Capitol Hill: The Winnowing Begins on Contracts for Planes, Ships and All Things Military’.
While it would be foolish to minimise the tidal wave of US public outrage and the upsurge of patriotism occasioned by September 11, it would also be wrong to think that all Americans were bent on evening the score by slaughtering innocents. Of course there were angry voices in the tabloids, radio shows and respectable organs of opinion which whip up blood lust or peddle stereotypes. These are dangerous because they encourage official recklessness and the brandishing of US sovereignty, not because tens of millions of Americans actually want to fight a war. On September 18 the New York Times reported that there had been no increase in enlistment over the previous week and that there were no queues at the recruiting offices as there had been after Pearl Harbour. The grief and candle-lit vigils had a more thoughtful side that could also be heard in the media, and which found expression in declarations by the Bishop of Boston and other senior Catholics, but not in Congress. The Democrats’ conduct was dictated by their belief that, in an atmosphere of patriotic mobilisation, it would be fatal to allow any daylight to appear between themselves and the president.
So the Presidency came to enjoy almost complete freedom of action and was able to give shape and direction to the widespread sense of shock, anger and alarm. Moreover Bush repeatedly insisted that the campaign against international terrorism would be a long one, presumably requiring indefinite extension of his special powers. In a book published this September Daniel Lazare anticipated this state of affairs when he warned of the extraordinary power of a US president compared with counterparts in other democratic states. In European democracies the head of government has greater domestic power than a US president. But in external affairs, Lazare argues, matters stand the other way around: ‘(A) US president is a good deal more powerful. Surrounded by courtiers, intelligence agencies, and military units at his beck and call, he is free to launch invasions or order covert operations any time, day or night, without fear of contradiction from his cabinet or any of his subordinates. Indeed he is expected to engage in such unilateral displays’. . Lazare was here drawing attention to a powerful war- and Cold War-related trend in US government which witnessed a twentieth century aggrandisement of the presidency that would have astonished the framers of the Constitution. But this trend was at least partly checked by resistance to the Vietnam war, by the impeachment of Nixon and by the considerable public controversy over Iran-Contra, or even the Gulf War or Kosovo bombardment. Moreover the post-Vietnam refusal to accept casualties also hobbled the US president and the war machine at his command. The opinion polls and talk shows now suggest that this restraint has weakened. Finally, US allies also constrained the White House during those episodes. Today matters are different and Lazare is simply stating the bare truth when he writes: ‘Short of total war, the US president has carte blanche to attack whom he pleases virtually anywhere in the world.’ .
The exact wording of the Congressional resolution of September 15 made clear the latitude extended to Bush: ‘ the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.’ So Bush can decide who is the enemy. That enemy can be a ‘nation’, a term which, unlike ‘state’ or ‘government’, would seem to expose whole peoples to attack. The president could be tempted to read the last clause as authorizing him to hit at any potential terrorist outfit or ‘nation’, not just those implicated in September 11. The only hints at restraint are those words ‘necessary and appropriate’ and the residual implication that it is only those implicated in September 11 who should be targeted. For the moment these qualifications carry little weight though if things go wrong critics might invoke them. It was on the day after this resolution that Bush vowed to ‘rid the world of evil-doers’ and cautioned: ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.’
The imperial presidency legitimated by the resolution might astound the framers of the Constitution but is not thereby unconstitutional. As Lazare argues, the Constitution was forged for another age and with the purpose of rendering public power as circumscribed and divided as possible. The presidency has escaped these bounds because no state could respect them in modern conditions. Invoking the archaic features of the Constitution will not restrain the presidency. Once war powers have been conferred on the president the executive’s already large competence is both increased and formally sanctioned.
When Americans say they want action against ‘those responsible’ for the attacks the sentiment is easy to understand. To expect the mass of US citizens simply to accept that they should be the target of such attacks would be ridiculous. Bush’s address to Congress on September 20 outlining his campaign against terrorism addressed these anxieties. Unfortunately it also harnessed them to a boundless and unilateral, US-defined and US-led war against terrorism (the word ‘crusade’ was avoided this time). This approach is most unlikely to capture the culprits or to prevent further attacks acts from the same quarter. Indeed, as I will argue, it gets in the way of more effective approaches that would inflict political defeats on Al Qaeda.
In a controlled and polished performance, and speaking from a prepared text, Bush underlined the limitless scope and long duration of the new mission which he would undertake on behalf of his wounded but unbowed country. ‘Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’ This new war against terror forced a choice upon every nation: ‘Every nation in every region of the world now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ So the president not only commandeered US foreign policy but sought to impose his definitions on every state in the world. In the truncated discussion that followed the speech no member of Congress queried the extraordinary new mandate.
The laying down of the law to other states combined with the refusal to yield up a particle of US sovereignty establishes the principle of the new empire. The obsessively reiterated discourse of war directed attention away from what could have been an international police action. And its definition as a ‘new kind of war’ allowed unilateralism to be raised to a new pitch. This was the unilateralism of imperial leadership, not that of isolationism or withdrawal. The attack had demonstrated ‘global reach’ yet had been aimed this time exclusively at targets on US soil. The fact that both attackers and victims were of many nations, and the world-wide revulsion at its devastating consequences, could have been used to mount a multilateral response. But that would have been contrary to the administration’s every instinct and inclination. That such an approach might be more effective in tracking down and punishing the network responsible for the attack would appear a crazy notion not only to the Bush White House but to the jingoists such as liberal commentator Thomas Friedman and the conservative commentator William Safire.
After the events of September 11 any US president, it might be urged, would have reacted in much the same way. But some might have avoided the continued and strident unilateralism. They might have seen that the international revulsion already evident, and willingly given , made it clear the United Nations, and its Security Council, could play a crucial role in combating terrorism. In the aftermath of the two world wars US presidents did advocate supranational organisation, in the shape of the League of Nations and UN. The aftermath of September 11 offered an opportunity to work out with other governments what was justified and effective in a campaign against terrorism, and what would merely feed it.
Whether or not a different president might have acted differently, Congress could have acted differently. One suspects that a Republican Senate faced with such demands from a Democratic president would have retained more of a say over future developments, or at least secured an informal agreement that the text of the President’s speech would have to be agreed beforehand. While the Democrats were under pressure to vote a resolution, the president, after a poor start, was also under pressure. In her interview with The Nation for 8 October Barbara Lee tells us many legislators shared her fears. They just lacked the courage of their convictions.
When Bush declared that states implicated in terrorism would be treated as enemies he was announcing a new, and in some ways welcome, policy since too many such states have in the past been close friends of the US. The US president showed no awareness, for example, that the US had aligned itself with states that unleashed death-squads in Central and South America. The generous might say that we should not visit the sins of the father on the son and that it is the future that matters. Yet in the days following the September 11 the Senate ratified Bush’s nominee as Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, a man notorious for his failure to report large scale violations of human rights by US-linked contra forces when he was ambassador in Honduras in the eighties. Thus the man who will represent the US case against terrorism to the major world forum will himself be someone who at best turned a blind eye to the slaughter of many thousands, and whose complicity may well have been worse than that.
The unilateralist conclusions drawn by Bush were superficially at odds with one theme of his speech on September 20: ‘This is not, however, just America’s fight. And what is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilisation’s fight.’ Given this claim it might seem strange that a world body, such as the United Nations, was not entrusted with conducting the fight. The explanation, of course, was the doctrine of national messianism. The United States is the leader and representative of humanity and civilisation, acting in their name.