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[Publisher’s Note]

The Party of Wilson, Wiretaps, and War


On the problems with Democratic interventions

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on July 18, 2013.

American democracy now seems to be dead. Yet while party bosses backed by billionaires and corporate lobbyists snuff out any effort at serious reform, and President Obama prevaricates on all the great issues of the day, two vital national arguments have erupted that might force our political elites and somnolent Congress into a genuine debate.

The first issue concerns privacy and the Fourth Amendment, and it cuts across both ideology and political faction. Even someone who thinks that Edward Snowden should be sent straight to Guantánamo has to be jolted by the vastness of the National Security Agency’s clandestine surveillance program and by the ballooning of America’s spying apparatus. The most vigilant terrorist watcher now must be asking whether the damage done to the Bill of Rights — not to mention European–American diplomatic relations — is worth the data collected.

For those of us on the left who consider Snowden a hero — who believe that the shredding of our former protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures” is cause for insurrection — now comes a perfect opportunity to join hands with such right-wingers of conscience as Ron and Rand Paul in the cause of restoring respect for the Constitution and the separation of powers. As Jonathan Schell wrote recently in The Nation, “The three branches, far from checking one another’s power or protecting the rights of Americans, entered one after another into collusion to violate them.” A Popular Front for constitutional integrity is long overdue.

The second argument, over what we should “do” about the civil war in Syria, could be as explosive as the one about warrantless spying. Here the battle lines present unorthodox patterns that might let new and dynamic alliances form.

I’m with the stay-out-of-Syria bloc. This group for now mostly includes Barack Obama, at least regarding the direct use of American military force, though the administration has decided to send weaponry to the rebels. Against pressure from liberal hawks, the president may be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. But so far he correctly perceives the foolishness of throwing the nation’s military weight behind a rebel “front,” key elements of which hate the United States and its tenuous commitment to democracy and the separation of church and state.

Woodrow Wilson. Engraving courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Woodrow Wilson. Engraving courtesy Smithsonian Institution

I’ve opposed America’s Wilsonian proclivities for a long time, seeing in “humanitarian intervention” and “pre-emptive war” not only violations of international law but also the subversion of the constitutional compact between sovereign citizens and their elected representatives. Vainglorious Woodrow Wilson lied his way to his very narrow re-election in 1916 on an antiwar platform, only to march the country into a European bloodbath under the banner of fostering democracy — democracy as defined by British and French colonialists with little interest in making the world “safe” for popular government of any kind. Shielded by the pretext of righteous war, Wilson and his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, then launched an assault on civil liberties and dissent that makes John Ashcroft and Eric Holder seem like card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But at least Wilson asked Congress to vote to declare war. Obama, like Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon before him, evidently thinks that his war-making authority (like his power to eavesdrop on emails and phone calls) is somewhere in the vicinity of absolute.

Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, in 1970, nearly earned him an additional article of impeachment in 1974. Since then, two Democratic presidents have notably expanded on Nixon’s contempt for the Constitution, but in plain sight. Clinton contributed U.S. warplanes to the NATO bombing of Belgrade, in 1999, with the dubious backing of non-binding “peacekeeping” resolutions in the House and Senate. (It bears noting that the House later defeated a non-binding resolution supporting the attack.) Obama went even further in Libya, joining the military overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi without any congressional approval whatever.

As former senator Jim Webb (D., Va.) wrote in March in The National Interest, “Under the objectively un-definable rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ President Obama has arguably established the authority of the president to intervene militarily almost anywhere without the consent or the approval of Congress.” This signifies “a breakdown of our constitutional process,” according to Webb, but I believe that it also affords an opportunity to spur our “complacent” Congress into doing its duty.

A broad debate over Syria is just the tonic we need, and the way to start is by amplifying the fissures now appearing among liberals over the use of military force. David Bromwich’s recent article in The New York Review of Books opposing intervention criticized an obviously partisan piece by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins promoting pro-intervention sentiment, and Filkins has taken umbrage. Their angry exchange of letters is only the tip of the iceberg: the argument needs to move from intellectual periodicals to the floor of the Senate, preferably before we end up with more murdered American diplomats in post-Assad Damascus. The war party — led by Secretary of State John Kerry, national-security adviser Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, the president’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — is recklessly Wilsonian, naively confident about America’s virtuous intentions and about its own.

By now, after the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, we ought to know better, as Kerry used to know better when he first came back from Vietnam. So, too, after the Palmer raids in 1919 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s massive Fourth Amendment violations in the 1950s and 1960s, we should learn not to swallow Obama’s bland reassurances about protecting us from terrorists.

But we on the antiwar left can’t do it alone. Liberal lambs like Bromwich and Noam Chomsky must lie down with conservative lions like Ron and Rand Paul in collective resistance to “big government.” Only then might we retrieve the power of the sword and some semblance of privacy.

is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

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