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As Long as We Remember...

January 3, 2006

Presidential Powers

Roy Meachum

Seeking to defend George W. Bush’s criticized ordering of the National Security Agency to monitor Americans’ telephone calls, his supporters make haste to point out the United States is at war. In the same breath they hasten to protest any and all attempts to link Iraq to Vietnam.

We are left to conclude, therefore, they mean to liken Mr. Bush to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occupied the Oval Office during the Civil War and World War II.

In defense of national unity against his fellow Americans who wanted to secede, Mr. Lincoln deemed hard measures necessary. He was not above hauling civilians before military tribunals, the example cited by the current president’s allies in justifying the administration’s handling of terror suspects.

Perhaps unconsciously on his part, Mr. Bush further invites comparison with the first Republican to hold his job when he labels Iraqi enemies as insurgents, implying that they are in revolt against a legitimate government. Calling them rebels would be too obvious.

Treating rebellion is infinitely more complicated than seeking victory on a battle field. In pursuing their goal of toppling installed authority, which always possesses the nation’s armed forces, insurgents must rely on unconventional means.

In this regard, Iraqi rebels can claim kinship with French resistance during World War II. In both instances, the existing government had been installed by powers that had prevailed in combat.

No less than opponents of the American presence in Baghdad, those who fought against German control of Paris were called terrorists by Berlin and its partners. In both the United States and Great Britain, they were heroes who were provided with weapons and other needs, including foreign experts and leaders.

Rebelling Confederates also welcomed such assistance, which came mainly from London and that prompted virulent rhetoric calling for war against England, as soon as the attempted secession was squashed. Its proponents never numbered more than a tiny minority but they were there.

With victory seriously in doubt, Mr. Lincoln apparently suffered no pangs in drawing up measures that caused cries that he was a dictator. His supporters argued civil liberties and privileges were less important than repelling the rebellion that would have obliterated the United States.

After Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Roosevelt also presided over policies that suspended the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. His most infamous act sanctioned imprisonment for thousands of West Coast Japanese, including hundreds of American citizens, solely based on their families’ origins. Decades passed before Washington admitted error and made payment to those interned.

In modern days, while Muslims, especially Arabs, have been subjected to official harassment and suffered widespread prejudice, at least they have not been stripped of their homes and businesses and thrown into camps located in isolated regions, as were the World War II Japanese-Americans.

His supporters are right when they claim Mr. Bush is not guilty of the excesses committed by other presidents including Lyndon Johnson, who was forced to continue the war in Vietnam, which started years before he recited the presidential oath.

They are wrong, however, when they attempt to link their man to Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt, who acted disastrously because loss on the battlefield would have changed the nation as we know it.

While fighting for survival, however, neither president acted without some form of consent from the Congress, which Mr. Bush argued again over the New Year’s weekend he didn’t need to put the NSA in the position to listen in on Americans’ conversations sometimes with each other.

In time-honored political ploy Mr. Bush asked for a Justice Department investigation to find out how The New York Times received information about the possibly illegal wiretaps, a concept he totally rejects – claiming wartime powers.

Senate Democrats backed by a few Republicans beat the president to the punch by calling for an investigation into the extent of presidential authority to act without Congress’s consent.

Mr. Bush may yet prove right; it’s possible that in times of war presidential powers know virtually no limits. But, remembering World War II, I can flatly say any comparison with the situation in Iraq falls flat on its face. Similarly, the efforts to eliminate terrorism bear no resemblance to Mr. Lincoln during the Civil War.

Braying we are fighting terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here makes mockery of logic and intelligence; it suggests we are in imminent danger of being taken over by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Hogwash!

Contrary to propaganda before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein never possessed the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction to the United States; he never really had the weapons, as the United Nations inspection team declared before American tanks rolled over the Kuwaiti border.

As for Osama bin Laden and his deadly crew, there’s been little evidence that they could mount a successful assault that would destroy our government or our way of life. Bombing the Twin Towers and the Pentagon could have been prevented if public servants had performed the jobs that came with their comfortable salaries.

In a worst case scenario, another 9/11 attack with its devastation would not be another Pearl Harbor; essentially because al-Qaeda’s minions lack the capability, as did the Japanese, to invade and seize our institutions, ruining Americans’ lives. On that basis, Iraq belongs in exactly the same category as Vietnam and Korea, where Republican Dwight David Eisenhower negotiated an end to the fighting. Although perhaps a more appropriate example might be found in Richard M. Nixon’s decision to withdraw from a situation that could not be worked out with our Vietnamese enemies; his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, tried.

As for that New York Times story, newspaper executives claimed they held the scoop about presidential orders to NSA for over a year before “rushing” to inform the general public. Those who claim breaking the story was another proof of the media’s anti-Republican bias lack no memory; Mr. Bush has never received the scorching accorded Democrat Johnson, especially the heat generated by the leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers that revealed the futility of our involvement and commitment in Vietnam.

Closer to proving right-wing claims of media bias against the present-day White House are the back-to-back stories about how the Defense Department hired a consultant to plant pro-U.S. stories in Iraqi papers, which was followed by how U.S. forces employed Sunni imams to influence their followers on our behalf.

That page was taken directly from the “white” propaganda disbursed during World War II and is, in the event, neither unusual nor damaging to Americans’ privileges under the First Amendment.

In both instances, the government did not pull the wool over citizens’ eyes. The effort was aimed at saving lives while affecting our lives not at all. I find neither charge, also printed in The New York Times to be worth more than a dead vice-president’s “bucket of spit.”

But even The Times has the right to publish such arrant nonsense, a charge that does not include its “leak” of the revelation on NSA spying on ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

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