The Imperial Presidency and the Law | Harper's Magazine

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The Imperial Presidency and the Law


Sidney Blumenthal writes about the implosion of the Bush Administration’s state-of-exception legal regime.

In private, Bush Administration sub-Cabinet officials who have been instrumental in formulating and sustaining the legal “war paradigm” acknowledge that their efforts to create a system for detainees separate from due process, criminal justice and law enforcement have failed. One of the key framers of the war paradigm (in which the president in his wartime capacity as commander in chief makes and enforces laws as he sees fit, overriding the constitutional system of checks and balances), who a year ago was arguing vehemently for pushing its boundaries, confesses that he has abandoned his belief in the whole doctrine, though he refuses to say so publicly. If he were to speak up, given his seminal role in formulating the policy and his stature among the Federalist Society cadres that run it, his rejection would have a shattering impact, far more than political philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s denunciation of the neoconservatism he formerly embraced. But this figure remains careful to disclose his disillusionment with his own handiwork only in off-the-record conversations. Yet another Bush legal official, even now at the commanding heights of power, admits that the administration’s policies are largely discredited. In its defense, he says without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “Not everything we’ve done has been illegal.” He adds, “Not everything has been ultra vires” — a legal term referring to actions beyond the law.

In fact Blumenthal is quoting remarks by a very senior Bush Administration official made at a recent off-the-record conference in response to my speech, “The Danger of Being Hated.” It was a response that indeed left jaws hanging because it conceded most of the critique.

In any event, Sid’s point is correct. The whole legal edifice that the Loyal Bushies created as a platform from which to conduct their “war on terror” has now collapsed. What remains are scattered ruins. And the authors now by and large agree that the entire scheme was, from the outset, driven by “politics.” When they make that admission, they mean perhaps to construct the Imperial Presidency. But in fact, as we will see soon enough, they all believe in an Imperial Presidency only when their man inhabits the White House, not otherwise. That is, the true motivation was purely partisan politics, which, as Pope says, “at best is but the madness of many for the gain of a few.” And to manipulate the law for such purposes is reprehensible.

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