The Coup at Home?
In an incredibly hyperbolic piece with the over-the-top headline “The Coup at Home,” NYT columnist Frank Rich draws an equivalence between the coup in Pakistan and the incremental decline of freedom in the United States in the name of counter-terrorism.
The gist of the piece:
The Pakistan mess, as The New York Times editorial page aptly named it, is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will not be so easily eradicated.
In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.
This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.
More Machiavellian still, Mr. Bush has constantly told the world he’s championing democracy even as he strangles it. Mr. Bush repeated the word “freedom” 27 times in roughly 20 minutes at his 2005 inauguration, and even presided over a “Celebration of Freedom” concert on the Ellipse hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It was an Orwellian exercise in branding, nothing more. The sole point was to give cover to our habitual practice of cozying up to despots (especially those who control the oil spigots) and to our own government’s embrace of warrantless wiretapping and torture, among other policies that invert our values.
Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly emulated by his Pakistani acolyte.
Now, I’m not going to argue that “we are at a time of war and thus, special circumstances dictate what happens.” Indeed, I broadly agree with Rich that we’ve sacrificed far too much freedom for far too little gain. I was against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and find things that few others seem to object to, like government agents forcing me to undergo searches despite not having even a whiff of reasonable suspicion, clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment, in order to board a private airplane absolutely outrageous. I’ve consistently opposed torture, rendition, the declaration of citizens as enemy combatants, and all manner of steps taken in this war.
I’ve even argued that Musharref’s justifications for his actions parallel our own.
So, as far as Musharraf is concerned, all of these actions are part of the “antiterrorism efforts.” That’s why operating under the rule of law is essential for a free society: An unchecked executive can declare anything he sees fit cause for extreme measures.
But, please, let’s not pretend that our Republic is anything like Pakistan. President Bush has not canceled any elections. Indeed, he stood for and only narrowly won re-election three years ago and there’s simply no question that he’d have stepped aside had John Kerry picked up another few thousand votes in Ohio. His party lost control of both Houses of Congress a year ago and he forthrightly acknowledged the whoopin’ he took. When the Supreme Court strikes down his overreaches, he bows to their authority. Number of opposition leaders imprisoned: Zero.
As Dave Schuler aptly noted in a recent exchange, “a difference in degree is, indeed, a difference in kind.”
Bush is pushing the envelope on presidential power in a way that it hasn’t been done in quite some time (the last major war the country was involved in) but he has neither the aspiration nor the ability to become a dictator. America is much less free than I’d prefer, but we’re clearly a “free country” by comparison with virtually every other society in the history of the planet.
Similarly, the mess at Abu Ghraib and the questionable practices at Guantanimo aren’t in the same league as the outrages perpetrated by our enemies.
All that said, though, bad action on our part can be exploited by our adversaries. Cries of, “This isn’t any different than Abu Ghraib” or “But Bush does it too” may be intellectually dishonest but they’re quite effective for propaganda purposes.
To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.
This is most apparent in the Republican presidential race, where most of the candidates seem to be running for dictator and make no apologies for it. They’re falling over each other to expand Gitmo, see who can promise the most torture and abridge the largest number of constitutional rights. The front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, boasts a proven record in extralegal executive power grabs, Musharraf-style: After 9/11 he tried to mount a coup, floating the idea that he stay on as mayor in defiance of New York’s term-limits law.
Please. Trying to change the law so that he could run in another free and open election isn’t quite the same as canceling elections and rounding up opponents. Moreover, he didn’t actually do it, right? More importantly, had he tried, we have multiple institutions in place that would have prevented it.
It’s true that wartime presidents push for more power and often get it. Similarly, wartime publics seem willing to give up a substantial measure of freedom. Bush didn’t invent this and the current era is hardly the first instance of this. The Founding generation gave us the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln blatantly abused his power in ways inconceivable now and he’s on Mount Rushmore. Ditto Teddy Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, too, minus the Rushmore part. Generally speaking, a counter-reaction followed the wars, but not always.
Regardless, we have elections a year from now to decide who will sit in the Oval Office, fill all 435 seats in the House, and a third of the United States Senate. Two years later, we’ll have yet another congressional election and two years after that, another presidential and congressional cycle, and so on. If the public demands more freedom, they’ll get it. If not, they won’t deserve it.
That, ultimately, is the bottom line. It’s not our leaders who are the problem but rather the led.