On a spectacular September morning more than seven years ago, our world changed. I remain one of those who believe that that day remains indelible, and its lesson unforgettable. The civilized democratic world came under attack from a small but lethal band of religious fanatics bent on destroying free societies, and, more terrifyingly, eager to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction that could make 9/11 look like a dry run.
We are still under attack.
This confluence of fundamentalism and lethal technology is the greatest danger of our time. And in the last seven years, the threat has not abated. Al Qaeda remains at large, and the very top leadership that planned and executed 9/11 is alive. They have reconstituted a base of sorts in Pakistan. They have scored several major propaganda victories – from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay to trapping most of the US military in an unending counter-insurgency in one country where al Qaeda was weak before 2002, Iraq. Islamist factions in Pakistan’s government are horrifyingly close to nuclear technology. Iran has gained in power and influence in the Middle East and its ability to launch and use nuclear weapons is much greater than it was on 9/11. At its best, the Iraq war will lead to a fractured petro-state, closely allied with Iran, beset by constant infighting and terrorism. At its worst, Iraq will keep over 100,000 young Americans trapped there for the rest of our lives. The war in Afghanistan against the Taliban is at a seven year nadir.
Now the really bad news: the view of co-presidents Bush and Cheney is that this is a war that can and should be controlled by only one branch of government and a war in which the job of the citizenry is to shop. It is a global war where force of arms remains too often a first resort and in which talking to our enemies is regarded as "the white flag of surrender," instead of another tool at our disposal. It is a war where the American government has alienated – in some cases deeply – democratic allies whose police work and intelligence we desperately need. I do not doubt that military force is part of the mix to defeat this threat. (Like everyone else, I’m heartened that general Petraeus has introduced some minimal intelligence into the occupation of Iraq, although I fear it has merely made our presence more protracted and our withdrawal more difficult.) But the crudeness with which military force has been deployed, the absence of strategy or even due diligence in the execution of the long war, and the massive public relations blunders which have led the United States to lose a propaganda war against a bunch of murderous, medieval loons are unforgivable.
These mistakes were compounded – and in large part created – by what I believe will one day be seen as the core event of the last eight years: the collapse of constitutional order and the rule of law fomented in a mixture of hubris and laziness by the president himself. It is now indisputable that the president and vice-president of the United States engineered a de facto coup against the constitution after 9/11, declaring themselves above any law, any treaty, and any basic moral norm in their misguided mission to rid the world of evil. This blog has watched this process with increasing dismay – and watched several attempts to bring the US back to sanity foiled by a relentless and unhinged vice-president’s office.
Cheney and Bush, unlike any presidency in American history, have dangerously pushed constitutional government to the brink of collapse. They did not merely assert a unified executive in which actions and regulations reserved to the executive branch were kept free from Congressional and judicial tampering. That is a perfectly defensible position, especially in wartime. They did not merely act in the immediate wake of an emergency to protect American citizens swiftly – again a perfectly legitimate use of executive power, unhampered by Congress or courts. They declared such power to be unlimited; they asserted also that it was as permanent as the emergency they declared; they claimed their dictatorial powers were inherent in the presidency itself, and above any legal constraints; they ordered their own lawyers to provide retroactive and laughable legal immunity for their crimes; they by-passed all the usual and necessary checks within the executive branch to ensure prudence and legality and self-doubt in the conduct of a war; they asserted that emergency war powers applied to the territory of the United States itself; they claimed the right to seize anyone – anyone, citizen or not – they deemed an "enemy combatant," to hold them indefinitely with no due process and to torture them until they became incoherent, broken, brutalized shells of human beings, if they survived at all. They did this to the guilty and they did this to the innocent. But they also had no way of reliably knowing which was which and who was who. Never before in wartime has the precious, sacred inheritance of free people been treated with such contempt by the leaders of the democratic West.
They seized countless individuals with no trials and no hearings. They tortured dozens to death. They subjected many more to some of the worst psychological torture techniques devised by Communist totalitarians and the worst physical suffering devised by the Gestapo. They crossed lines no American president had ever crossed before. They withdrew the US from the Geneva Conventions – and did so secretly. They tapped American’s phones without warrants, and forced many of their randomly grabbed prisoners into the black hole of insanity. They set up secret sites in former Soviet gulags to torture their victims. They single-handedly devastated America’s reputation for human rights and the rule of law in the minds of the vast majority of people in other Western democracies, let alone the developing world, let alone the millions of Muslims across the Middle East who now suspect that America is not really better than their own thugocracies, that America also tortures when it wants to, that the shining city on a hill is actually a place where men above the law can do anything they want to other human beings in their custody.
No economic mismanagement can compare with this attack on the basic institutions of our democracy and the constitution. No incompetence in conducting an occupation can be deemed comparable with this level of criminality and indecency. No reaction to a natural disaster, however hapless and negligent, is as grave as this crime. No financial crisis eclipses it in gravity. The president’s oath is to protect the constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. Instead, the president himself became an enemy to the constitution he swore to uphold.
This is the depth of the predicament the United States is in. The Islamist threat remains; but the Constitution is in deep disrepair, the military stretched to breaking point, the national debt doubled, and America’s reputation in terrible shape. More important, the president and vice-president deeply damaged the reliability and integrity of America’s intelligence services, creating a self-perpetuating loop of phony intelligence procured by torture which then justified more torture which led to worse intelligence. It will be decades before we learn the full extent of the damage Bush and Cheney have done to the country’s ability to find out what the enemy is really up to, how much risk these sadists and goons have subjected us to, how much damage to this country they may have facilitated by filling intelligence with the garbage always created by torture. We do know that their policy has led to just one successful prosecution – and that many guilty figures will escape justice because torture has tainted the legal process beyond repair.
My great fear since 2004 is that this could have gotten even worse. Another attack and the abuse of power could have become much worse. A Romney or a Giuliani, empowered by religious fanaticism and a worship of state power, could have taken us down a path much darker than even the Cheney-Addington-Yoo cul-de-sac. Ron Paul emerged as the one Republican prepared to defend the rule of law, the Constitution and habeas corpus in the primaries. But, in the end, McCain emerged by default, a torture victim himself, and a critic of some aspects of the conduct of the war. But we saw in 2006 that, when push came to shove, even McCain acquiesced to the legalization of America’s use of the very same torture techniques once used against him. And in this campaign, we have seen how no Republican candidate can escape the logic of bigotry, fanaticism and xenophobia that now grips and motivates the Republican party base. We have also learned, much more importantly, that McCain would appoint Justices to the Supreme Court who would acquiesce to and constitutionally entrench the dictatorial presidency that Bush-Cheney believe in as loyally as Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia. That means we are one vote away from the court ever restraining this unchecked executive. It doesn’t matter who that executive is and what party he or she belongs to. What matters is that the controls upon it – controls critical to the endurance of constitutional balance and individual freedom in America – have been frayed to the breaking point. There is no greater cause right now than repairing that.
If I were to give one reason why I believe electing Barack Obama is essential tomorrow, it would be an end to this dark, lawless period in American constitutional government. The domestic cultural and political reasons for an Obama presidency remain as strong as they were when I wrote "Goodbye To All That" over a year ago. His ability to get us past the culture war has been proven in this campaign, in the generation now coming of age that will elect him if they turn out, in Obama’s staggering ability not to take the bait. His fiscal policies are too liberal for me – I don’t believe in raising taxes, I believe in cutting entitlements for the middle classes as the way to fiscal balance. I don’t believe in "progressive taxation", I support a flat tax. I don’t want to give unions any more power. I’m sure there will be moments when a Democratic Congress will make me wince. But I also understand that money has to come from somewhere, and it will not come in any meaningful measure from freezing pork or the other transparent gimmicks advertized in advance by McCain. McCain is not serious on spending. But he is deadly serious in not touching taxes. So, on the core question of debt, on bringing America back to fiscal reason, Obama is still better than McCain. If I have to take an ideological hit to head toward fiscal solvency, I’ll put country before ideology.
But none of this compares to the task of restoring the rule of law and Constitutional balance. Unlike McCain, Obama has never wavered on torture or habeas corpus or on keeping the executive branch under the law. His deep understanding and awareness of the Constitution eclipses McCain’s. Coming from the opposing party, he will also be able to restore confidence that what lies within America’s secret government – the one constructed by Bush and Cheney beyond any accountability, law or morality – will be ended or cleaned up. He can restore critically needed trust again – and force the Democratic party to take responsibility for a war which we all need to own, and take responsibility for, again.
We cannot win this war without regaining our democratic soul, ending torture, and returning to lawful governance. But these things won’t win the war either. On that, we have a perilous task ahead. I don’t know how Obama will be able to get out of Iraq in his first term. I fear that Bush and Cheney have made withdrawal deliberately difficult if not impossible. I fear the same in Afghanistan. I don’t know how Obama will handle Iran, given the power that Bush and Cheney have ceded to the Islamist regime there, and the danger of a pre-emptive strike before Obama even gets inaugurated. But I do know that he will handle these wars with reason, with prudence and with care. Those are three qualities absent from the White House for eight years. And I do know that Obama’s very person, and what he symbolizes, will do more to restore America’s image and repair our global public relations than any single measure any new administration will be able to accomplish.
The truth is: we are in a war for the future of human civilization. We are fighting for a world in which destructive technology need not collide with fierce religious fundamentalism to annihilate us all; for a world in which dialogue across cultures and religions and regions (even within America) is essential if we are to survive. We need to win the argument in the developing world; we need to reach out and persuade the Muslim middle – especially the next generation in Iran and Iraq and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Western Europe – about the virtues of democracy and constitutionalism. We cannot do that if we trash our own values ourselves. It is self-defeating. We cannot be a beacon to the world until we have reformed ourselves. In this war, we are also fighting for an America that does not lose its soul in fighting our enemy. Just because we are fighting evil does not mean we cannot ourselves succumb to it. That is what my Christian faith teaches me – that no nation has a monopoly on virtue, and that every generation has to earn its own integrity. I fear and believe we have given away far too much – and that, while this loss is permanent, it can nonetheless be mitigated by a new start, a new direction, a new statement that the America the world once knew and loved is back.
It will not be easy. The world will soon remember why it resents America as well as loves it. But until this unlikely fellow with the funny ears and strange name and exotic biography emerged on the scene, I had begun to wonder if it was possible at all. I had almost given up hope, and he helped restore it. That is what is stirring out there; and although you are welcome to mock me for it, I remain unashamed. As someone once said, in the unlikely story of America, there is never anything false about hope. Obama, moreover, seems to bring out the best in people, and the calmest, and the sanest. He seems to me to have a blend of Midwestern good sense, an intuitive understanding of the developing world that is as much our future now as theirs’, an analyst’s mind and a poet’s tongue. He is human. He is flawed. He will make mistakes. His passivity and ambiguity are sometimes weaknesses as well as strengths.
But there is something about his rise that is also supremely American, a reminder of why so many of us love this country so passionately and are filled with such grief at what has been done to it and in its name. I endorse Barack Obama because I will not give up on America, because I believe in America, and in her constitution and decency and character and strength.
And the world needs that America now as much as it ever has. Can we start that healing, that rebirth, tomorrow?
Yes. We. Can.