Thursday, January 05, 2006

Absolute power

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it's lonely here,
there's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that's an order!
--Leonard Cohen The Future
Tom Engelhardt argues that the Bush regime isn't pursuing an expansion of presidential power in pursuit of any concrete goals, but rather that more and more radical goals are being proposed simply in order to facilitate the expansion of power. The regime is, to borrow a phrase from Saul Friedlander, "scanning the political horizon for the most extreme options" in order to shatter all previous bounds of presidential power.
The issue, it turns out, is never primarily -- to take just two areas of potentially illegal administration activity -- torture or warrantless surveillance. Though each of them had value and importance to top administration officials, they were nonetheless primarily the means to an end.

This is why the announcement of (and definition of) the "global war on terror" almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks was so important. It was to be a "war" without end. No one ever attempted to define what "victory" might actually consist of, though we were assured that the war itself would, like the Cold War, last generations. Even the recent sudden presidential announcement that we will now settle only for "complete victory" in Iraq is, in this context, a distinctly limited goal because Iraq has already been defined as but a single "theater" (though a "central" one) in a larger war on terror. A war without end, of course, left the President as a commander-in-chief-without-end and it was in such a guise that the acolytes of that "obscure philosophy" of total presidential power planned to claim their "inherent" constitutional right to do essentially anything. (Imagine what might have happened if their invasion of Iraq had been a success!)

This is why torture has been so appealing to Bush and Cheney and why it has played such a pivotal role in their presidency.
After all, if you can establish a presidential right to order torture (no matter how you manage to redefine it) as well as to hold captives under a category of warfare dredged up from the legal dustbin of history in prisons especially established to be beyond the reach of the law or the oversight of anyone but those under your command, you've established a presidential right to do just about anything imaginable. While the get-tough aura of torture may indeed have appealed to some of these worshippers of power, what undoubtedly appealed to them most was the moving of the presidential goalposts, the changing of the rules.
Unfortunately, even more extreme possibilities have begun to appear on the horizon as rumors of impending war* on Iran continue to grow.

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*link via The Fall of Humanity

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