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Entangled Giant

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As yesterday’s Links points out, Garry Wills has a fine essay in the New York Review of Books that puts the fundamental dilemma of the Obama presidency in historical context:

[T]he momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that “extraordinary rendition”—the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries—was a tool he meant to retain. Obama’s nominee for solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told Congress that she agreed with John Yoo’s claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to “battlefield law.” On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking “state secrets”—the policy based on the faulty Reynolds case—Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of “enhanced interrogation.” The CIA had earlier (illegally) destroyed ninety-two videotapes of such interrogations—and Obama refused to release documents describing the tapes.

When, for instance, the President says that he wants to avoid a comprehensive investigation into the criminal misdeeds of his predecessors, that can be understood as an act of political grace. But it may really be an effort to extend a redefinition of the presidency that vests the office with more power than the Constitution allots. Wills’s penetrating analysis of this issue is all the more convincing because it comes from a writer who has up to this point been generous in his assessments of Obama.

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