The Imperial Presidency Takes a Step Back (Or, why America’s finally rolling back to life before 9/11)

President Obama has done the unthinkable – he’s asked Congress for permission.  Never mind that he didn’t much bother for Libya, or continues to not much bother for the extensive drone war in Yemen, or will he much bother any other time should America’s interests be threatened by some kind of hair-trigger, do-or-die crisis.  This is something of a moment.  Breath it in – it’s a sign the U.S. is starting to mature a bit.

Necessity was the mother of invention of America’s empire

Lincoln was a dedicated civil servant, of course, but what he did to win the Civil War was openly tyrannical.  Without a strong, single leader making swift decisions, without any of the wrangling that comes of group-think, the Union would have lost the war.  The Republic learned the lesson well; on military matters, power increasingly vested itself not in Congress’ power to raise troops, tax, or declare war, but in the presidency’s power to order soldiers about.

This was because, as America grew in stature, its military needs grew well beyond the need to defend the borders.  After World War II, once Britain began the steady process of decolonization, America became the prime guarantor of free trade for the West and Western-aligned countries.  There could be no mucking about with this.  The Soviets weren’t making decisions in committee and neither could the U.S.

So was born the presidency we now know and mostly resent

From World War II downwards, presidents have had massive leeway to start and end wars, largely because their decisions are made overseas where people can’t vote and where killing someone won’t cost you Ohio.  Domestically, since America’s not been invaded since 1812 (forget Pancho Villa’s raid in 1916), Americans have shown little interest in foreign affairs or in checking the power of the presidency to conduct them.

The imperial presidency, however, dragged the country into Vietnam and, worse than that, demanded conscripts for it.  This put a faraway war on the doorstep yet again, but for reasons unclear to most citizens.  Few could understand the Domino Theory, which was half wrong, half right, and even less wanted to.  All ordinary Americans knew is that they might be sent off to die in some God-forsaken country they hadn’t heard of.

So the presidency learned a lesson – conscripts don’t work.  This led to the all-professional, highly technical army that defeated Iraq’s legions in 1991, sorted the Balkans, and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

God, are Americans tired, though

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the specter of Vietnam kept presidents from committing to any war they couldn’t swiftly run away from.  Alas, 9/11 happened, and thus was born a new rule in American politics – Thou Shalt Kill Many Al Qaeda (Or at least people who sound like them).

But eleven years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq wore down the public’s willingness to use force overseas – or, more accurately, their willingness to vote for “tough guy” politicians.  It’s no longer a winning formula to shout down Islamic extremism and hold up how many drones you voted for.  In fact, there’s evidence that doing so might cost one an election.  Hence Congress’ sudden lack of interest.

Now the emperor’s got no clothes

Until Iraq, most people believed presidents generally acted in the public interest overseas, thinking they’d learned from Vietnam.  But Iraq showed that that could be untrue; that no, despite all the history books and Oliver Stone films, Vietnam’s lessons could be forgotten.

It was always true that Congress could put a stop to any war simply be defunding it.  But no Congress has ever done that for fear of looking weak.  The flavor of the week, however, is not strength, but isolationism.  This forgotten great balancer kept America from fighting the brunt of World War I, arriving to save the day without suffering the same level of losses as France and Britain.

Alas, this isn’t a permanent change

America still retains premier military prowess.  If Americans can’t understand why bombing a regime that’s used chemical weapons is good policy, they do, at least, fear China, or something like it.  Should a bigger threat emerge than Assad, the U.S. will rise to it and empower whatever president there is to take the necessary steps.  America isn’t crawling back into a hole.  But the presidency is reaching a limit.  There’s only so much abuse an electorate can take.


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