Monday, February 05, 2007

Lincoln on War Powers

I wish to take this bit out of context, because I really wish to focus just on Lincoln's words, which are of critical relevance today.

Unclaimed Territory - by Glenn Greenwald: Our little Churchills: "s this letter from Abraham Lincoln, written while a member of Congress in 1848, to William Herndon (h/t FMD). Herndon had argued (echoing the claims from the White House and the likes of Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol today) that the President had the unrestrained power to wage war against Mexico in order to defend U.S. interests regardless of the views of Congress or anyone else -- a view which Lincoln (accurately) found repulsive to the core principles of our political system:


[And here I cite the entire letter -BK]

A. LINCOLN.

ON THE MEXICAN WAR

TO WILLIAM H. HERNDON.

WASHINGTON, February 15, 1848.

DEAR WILLIAM:--Your letter of the 29th January was received last night. Being exclusively a constitutional argument, I wish to submit some reflections upon it in the same spirit of kindness that I know actuates you. Let me first state what I understand to be your position. It is that if it shall become necessary to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line and invade the territory of another country, and that whether such necessity exists in any given case the President is the sole judge.

Before going further consider well whether this is or is not your position. If it is, it is a position that neither the President himself, nor any friend of his, so far as I know, has ever taken. Their only positions are--first, that the soil was ours when the hostilities commenced; and second, that whether it was rightfully ours or not, Congress had annexed it, and the President for that reason was bound to defend it; both of which are as clearly proved to be false in fact as you can prove that your house is mine. The soil was not ours, and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it. But to return to your position. Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,--"I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood. Write soon again.

Yours truly,

A. LINCOLN.

Glenn continues:

The view of America as advocated by George Bush and his followers is as antithetical as can be even to the views of the individuals to whom they claim allegiance. They exploit historical events and iconic individuals as tawdry props, and they neither understand them nor actually care about their meaning. They turn them into cheap cartoons -- Churchill! Lincoln! America! -- drained of their actual substance and converted into impoverished, degraded symbols used to promote ideas that are the exact opposite of what they actually embody.
And here I segue; for while Glenn clearly feels (using such laden language as he does) that this is a most cynical policy, I have reason to believe that this is the result of a confusion of thought, of the most fundamental sort of "magical thinking." There is, I suggest, a genuine inability on the part of the Right to understand the distinction between symbolism and reality, just as there is a general misunderstanding of the difference between power and force.

One of my Sifu's favorite stories about his teacher was a vivid demonstration of the distinction between power and force. His master would toss a pine board in the air, and strike so hard on the way down that splinters rained down upon the awed students. "That is force," he said, disapprovingly. He would then toss another board in the air and strike it so that it fell at his feet - neatly split lengthwise. "That is power."

Power is force used with control to achieve a precise, determined end without fuss. We used to be a powerful nation. Now we are a forceful nation - and the rest of the world is picking splinters out of it's hair.

Moreover, we have demonstrated the problem of using force in an indiscriminate, uncontrolled and unconsidered way - it creates far more issues and enemies than can be addressed.

The response of a powerful nation would have been something along the line removing the Taliban from play, securing the Afgan-Pakistani border and a number of very public trials and convictions, involving the sorts of persons who could be tried and convicted. For the remainder - let us say that knowing who is involved opens up a range of potential, precise actions.

But that, of course, would have required investigation and determination of fact. The good police work that wingers, usually so concerned with law and order, dismiss when they wish to lash out without concern for justice, consequence or even useful outcomes.

But I would observe that any rational counter-terror strategy has to involve drying up the potential supply of recruits while making training those recruits a more difficult and personally dangerous job. It would also have to involve confronting the sources of funding and arms on some level, probably on a number of levels both covert and overt. Most importantly, it should seem to those trying to bring terror to bear that it was a vastly unlucky and dangerous enterprise that seemed to gain little notice or positive attention.

It's not a flashy approach. It's not glamorous. But it's a well-proven approach that, coupled with a reasonable and rational foreign policy will bear fruit far more quickly than this disastrous course.

And this brings us back to Lincoln's wise and prescient words, for what he describes as a grave risk is exactly what has happened, to an end far worse than Lincoln might reasonably have foreseen.

Executives are, by their nature, competitive and combative folks. They are indeed the stuff of Kings, and that very trait, the one that makes a good King, executive or President effective is also what needs to be restrained; the scope of their actions must be circumscribed and subject to review if only to save them from their own ambition.

While it's easy and valid to blame Bush and his coterie of incompetent visionaries, as they are the sine qua non of "misrule," this mess is truly the fault of a Congress so distracted by it's finagling and fundraising that it could not be bothered to read the bills the President advocated. Nor was this the sole failing of Republicans; a great many Democrats - and I include in this Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Sen. Biden - failed as badly as their Republican colleagues and with far less political excuse. They essentially handed George Bush powers that Lincoln clearly felt were above HIS pay grade, that would test his ethics - and we have reaped the whirlwind.

It was in such fashion that the Roman Senate became irrelevant and a line of Caesars began to grind the known world beneath the hobnails of it's Legions. And that is a history lesson the rest of the world remembers all too well - from Seville to Istanbul.

Whether or not we choose to reign in the Presidency and return to Constitutional governance, the world as a whole will act to place us in checkmate. It will be vastly better for us, as responsible Citizens, to take on that unpleasant task ourselves. Moreover, it's our duty.

Impeaching the President would be a great start to alerting the world that the great Silent Majority is awake and aware.

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