Nor does the press corps tie Bush’s remarkable
abrogation of both U.S. and international law together in any coherent
way for the American people. At best, disparate elements of Bush’s
authoritarian powers are dealt with individually as if they are not part
of some larger, more frightening whole.
What’s even odder is that the facts of this
historic power grab are no longer in serious dispute. The Bush
administration virtually spelled out its grandiose vision of Bush’s
powers during the debates over such issues as Jose Padilla’s detention,
Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination and the disclosure of
For instance, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has
defended the wiretapping program in part by citing the inherent powers
of the President to override laws during war time, an argument that the
administration also has applied to detentions without trial, abuse of
prisoners, launching foreign military operations and committing
All Bush has to do, it seems, is deem someone an
“enemy combatant” or an “affiliate” of some terrorist group and that
person’s life and liberty are delivered into Bush’s hands, without any
impartial evaluation of the evidence.
But what makes Bush’s assertion of authority
uniquely dangerous in U.S. history is that his claim of “plenary” – or
unlimited – powers as the Commander in Chief are not made in the
short-term context of a national crisis or a war with a definable end.
Rather these presidential powers have been asserted
during what administration officials are calling the Long War against
terrorism, a conflict that could well last for decades and quite
possibly forever. Instead of the Long War, it could really become the
In other words, the American system of government as the world has
known it for two-plus centuries – with its “unalienable rights” and its
“checks and balances” – has effectively come to an end.
Yet this earth-shaking development is barely a news story in the
United States. Even when prominent Democrats and some Republicans draw
troubling conclusions about Bush’s megalomania, the major news media
barely mentions the protests.
For instance, Sen. Russ Feingold observed in
a Feb. 7 speech to the Senate about Bush’s warrantless surveillance,
“this administration reacts to anyone who
questions this illegal program by saying that those of us who demand the
truth and stand up for our rights and freedoms have a pre-9/11 view of
the world. In fact, the President has a pre-1776 view of the world.”
But Feingold’s declaration, implicitly
comparing Bush to King George III, got far more attention on Internet
blogs than in the mainstream news media.
Another of the few
political leaders who has sounded the alarm is former Vice President Al
Gore, who addressed the issue of presidential power in a largely ignored
speech on Jan. 16, the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
“An Executive who arrogates to himself the power to
ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act
free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the
Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution – an all-powerful
Executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free,”
“As the Executive acts outside its constitutionally
prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would
expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other
branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is
threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.” [See
of Unalienable Rights.”]
The Bush administration’s
obsession with controlling the flow of information also carries a
foreboding sense of doom to anyone who believes in a vibrant democracy.
It now appears that Bush’s concept of a terrorist “affiliate” is
sliding inexorably toward covering people who present facts that
undermine Bush’s “information warfare” goals.
On Feb. 17, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that the battle over information will
be a decisive front in the War on Terror and juxtaposed “the enemy” and
“news informers” as part of the problem.
“We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life
is at stake and the center of gravity of that struggle is not simply on
the battlefield overseas; it’s a test of wills, and it will be won or
lost with our publics, and with the publics of other nations,” Rumsfeld
“We'll need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts and
to correct the lies that are being told, which so damage our country,
and which are repeated and repeated and repeated. …
“Let there be no doubt, the longer it takes to put a strategic
communication framework into place, the more we can be certain that the
vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers that most
assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking
Already, Bush’s allies in the right-wing news media have taken to
accusing “news informers” and other critics of Bush’s policies of
“aiding and abetting” the enemy and of committing “treason.”
At times, the White House has coordinated these right-wing media
attacks with government leaks to target critics, such as the disclosure
of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity after her husband, former
Ambassador Joseph Wilson, challenged Bush’s case for war in Iraq.
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
So, in big ways and small, the Bush administration has thrown down
the gauntlet to Americans who want to protect individual liberties and
preserve the democratic Republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
But a major obstacle to any unified resistance to Bush’s
authoritarian model is the failure of the news media to explain these
historic developments to the public. More often, the big newspapers and
networks have bowed to the administration’s news management.
The New York Times, the Washington Post and other
key U.S. news outlets only grudgingly admitted that they let the country
down before the Iraq War by swallowing Bush administration claims on
Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
But little has really changed in the past three
years, either in the media’s structure or in the pecking order of elite
columnists. With only a few exceptions, the commentators who bungled
Iraq's WMD have survived and are still shaping – or misshaping – public
Indeed, most elite columnists are still acting as
if all is normal – that it’s not so strange that Bush is saying that he
or his successors can do whatever they want to anyone in the world for
the duration of the so-called Long War.
Even after the WMD debacle, most of these editorial
writers and commentators continued to behave as Bush’s cheerleaders, for
instance, praising his Second Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 2005, for
its endless invocation of the words “freedom” and “liberty.”
The pundits also have kept spotting glimmers of
hope in the Middle East, even as the U.S. position has grown grimmer and
grimmer. A year ago, these commentators were hailing Bush for unleashing
the cleansing winds of democracy across the Middle East.
But the pundits missed the fact that many of those
regional developments were unrelated to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They
also didn’t catch the possibility that elections might not bring the
blessings of peace and moderation that Bush promised.
Like many of his U.S. press colleagues, New York
Times foreign policy columnist Thomas L. Friedman pronounced himself
“unreservedly happy” about the Iraqi election of Jan. 30, 2005, adding:
“you should be, too.”
But there was always a dark potential to the
pleasing images of Iraqis voting with stained fingers. Rather than
pointing toward an exit for the United States from Iraq, the election
actually was a way for the Shiite majority to consolidate its sectarian
control of Iraq, further isolating and alienating the rival Sunni
However, this sobering possibility was banished
mostly to the Internet and other fringes of American media.
At Consortiumnews.com, we wrote that “if the
Sunni-based insurgency doesn’t give up in the months ahead, American
soldiers could find themselves enmeshed in a long and brutal civil war
helping the Shiite majority crush the resistance of the Sunni minority.
The Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraq, find themselves in a tight
corner and may see little choice but to fight on.” [See “Sinking
But the big media was busy waving its pom-poms.
After those Iraqi elections and several other
regional developments, Friedman was perceiving historical “tipping
points” that foreshadowed “incredible,” positive changes in the Middle
East. [NYT, Feb. 27, 2005]
To Friedman, this expected transformation of the
Arab world would also be a personal vindication for his endorsement of
the bloody Iraq War, which has now killed nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and
tens of thousands of Iraqis.
“The last couple of years have not been easy for
anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a
decent, democratizing outcome,” Friedman wrote. [NYT, March 3, 2005]
A lead editorial in the New York Times struck a
similar tone, crediting Bush for supposedly inspiring democratic changes
in Lebanon and Palestine, not to mention Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “The
Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit
for many of these advances,” the editorial said. [NYT, March 1, 2005]
Over at the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page, there was
similar applause for Bush and the neoconservative vision of imposing
“democracy” on Arab nations by force.
“Could it be that the neocons were right and that
the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Hussein and the holding of
elections will trigger a political chain reaction throughout the Arab
world?” marveled Post columnist Richard Cohen. [Washington Post, March
Another influential Post columnist, David Ignatius,
also was swept up in the excitement.
“The old system (in the Middle East) that had
looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down
as it falls,” Ignatius wrote. Crediting the U.S. invasion of Iraq for
the “sudden stress” that started the collapse, Ignatius wrote, “It’s
hard not to feel giddy, watching the dominoes fall.”
Ignatius hailed what he called “the Middle East’s
glorious catastrophe” and urged the United States to do what it could to
accelerate the process.
“We are careening around the curve of history, and
it’s useful to remember a basic rule for navigating slippery roads: Once
you’re in the curve, you can’t hit the brakes. The only way for America
to keep this car on the road is to keep its foot on the accelerator,”
Ignatius wrote. [Washington Post, March 2, 2005]
(It’s not clear where this Post columnist went to
driving school, but few instructors would tell their pupils, who find
themselves sliding into an icy curve, to step on the gas.)
Another Washington Post columnist, neoconservative
Charles Krauthammer, sounded like a modern-day Trotsky and Robespierre,
urging an escalation of Bush’s radical strategies. “Revolutions do not
stand still,” Krauthammer wrote. “They either move forward or die.”
[Washington Post, March 4, 2005]
This conventional wisdom of Bush bringing
democratic enlightenment to the Arab world also permeated the news
“A powerful confluence of events in the Middle East
in recent weeks has infused President Bush’s drive to spread democracy
with a burst of momentum, according to supporters and critics alike,”
reported the Washington Post in an awestruck page-one article. [March 8,
Just a year later, however, it is clear how
off-the-mark these columns were. Many of the developments – viewed by
the pundits as interrelated and inspired by the Iraq War – were actually
reactions to distinct local conditions.
The Lebanese protests against Syrian occupation
were not influenced by Bush’s invasion of Iraq or his “freedom”
Inaugural Address, but rather by growing impatience with the longtime
Syrian presence. Those tensions were brought to a head by the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and suspicions of
A year ago, a brief revival of Israeli-Palestinian
peace talks was sparked by the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat
and the desire of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to leave behind a
more positive legacy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon
Amorality” or “Bush’s
Another giant hole in the conventional wisdom was
that elections – which would likely reflect the angry mood of Muslims at
this time – could well take the region in the opposite direction, toward
greater religious fundamentalism and extremism.
Contrary to Bush’s happy rhetoric about how
“history has proven that democracies yield the peace,” the reality can
be the opposite. Historically, voters in democratic societies often have
responded to fear, hate, religious fervor or some other irrational
stimuli in supporting political demagogues who provoke unnecessary wars.
Historians can trace this pattern from Ancient
Athens to the war fever that Bush released in the United States in 2002
before invading Iraq. While democracies have many admirable qualities,
moderation and peacefulness are not always among them.
Anyone with a sense of history and an awareness of
the animosities in the Islamic world should not have been surprised that
some recent elections served to exacerbate sectarian tensions and bring
religious fundamentalists to power.
In Iraq, elections indeed did solidify the power of
the Shiite majority over the Sunnis. The pro-Iranian Shiite parties and
their Kurdish allies also have consolidated their control of the
nation’s oil riches, leaving the Sunnis without either political power
or oil wealth – and thus creating new incentives for them to fight on.
The year-ago optimism about Palestine also proved
to be misplaced. Not only have prospects for peace talks foundered, but
a stroke removed Sharon from power and a new crisis has emerged after
Islamic militants in Hamas defeated the more secular Fatah movement in a
Now, rather than hailing those blessings of
democracy, Israel and the United States are considering ways to isolate,
bankrupt and destroy the elected Hamas government.
So, instead of democracy ushering in a new era of
peace and moderation in the Middle East, the opposite appears to be
By pushing for elections while simultaneously
stirring up Islamic fury over Iraq and other issues, Bush is opening the
door to more violence, more extremism and more anti-Americanism.
All of these possibilities were logical outgrowths
of what was occurring a year ago. Indeed, it should have been obvious to
U.S. analysts that elections represented a huge risk amid Muslim
animosity over the Iraq occupation, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib
and Guantanamo, and long-term U.S. support for Israel and corrupt Arab
But many leading U.S. columnists were caught
off-guard by these developments, much as they were duped by Bush’s
claims about Iraq’s WMD. Yet these error-prone columnists haven’t been
fired or replaced.
Now, the danger is the media’s failure to react to
Bush’s unprecedented assertion of power inside the United States.
Just as the nation’s elite editorial pages
misunderstood the reality in the Middle East, most columnists are
missing the extraordinary transformation now underway toward a system of
The pundits would rather bathe in the feel-good
rhetoric about Bush spreading freedom and democracy around the world
than face the harsh reality of Bush eradicating constitutional
safeguards at home.
[For more on Consortiumnews.com’s reporting on the
media crisis and the Middle East, see “Politics
of Preemption,” “Giving War a Chance,” “The
Bush Rule of Journalism,” “Washington’s
Ricky Proehl Syndrome,” “LMSM
– the Lying Mainstream Media,” “Iraq
& the Logic of Withdrawal,” “Explaining
the Bush Cocoon,” “Alito
& the Point of No Return,” and “Alito
& the Media Mess.”]