The President Is Reading a Book, I'm Afraid

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President
George W. Bush has been reading a book. At least, he claims to have
been reading one. I know what you’re thinking, but the First Shrub
swears that he has been reading more than just the funny papers
lately. We’d all be better off, however, if he had stuck to the
comics.

In
an interview with an Associated Press reporter, Bush said that on
his vacation he had been reading a recently published book by Eliot
A. Cohen, The
Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime
.
Cohen is a well-known neocon warhawk and all-around armchair warrior
who professes “strategic studies” at the Johns Hopkins University
School of Advanced International Studies and, in his spare time,
ponders mega-deaths (his own not included) with other lusty members
of the Defense Policy Board. The quintessential civilian go-getter,
he never met a war he didn’t want to send somebody else to fight
and die in.

The
Supreme Command consists of case studies of how four “statesmen”
– Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and
David Ben-Gurion – successfully managed to make their generals
act more vigorously than those officers really wanted to act. By
spurring their too-timid generals, these four micro-managing commanders
in chief supposedly got superior results from their war-making efforts.
The common soldiers who were fed into the consuming maw of war under
these worthies might have given us a different opinion, but dead
men don’t make good critics.

So,
what are we to make of Bush’s reading of this book, assuming that
he really has been reading it? The short answer is that this is
not good news for the world. Such reading seems calculated to bend
the president’s mind, never a mighty organ in any event, toward
thinking of himself in Lincolnian or Churchillian terms. Indeed,
those of us who have had the stomach to observe his public strutting
and puffing since September 11 might have suspected that his juvenile
sensibilities would be drawn all too readily toward such a grandiose
self-conception. After all, does he but speak, and mighty armadas
are launched on a global war against evil?

As
he clears brush at his Texas digs and takes his jogs with the Secret
Service boys, Bush may fancy that he is cut from the same cloth
as his Republican predecessor Theodore Roosevelt – he of the
strenuous life and the more-than-a-bit balmy conception of man’s
relation to his fellow man, most of whom he would gladly crush like
bugs under his manly jackboots. Why worry, the current president
might be thinking, about the views of a wimp such as Colin Powell?
What does he know about war, in comparison with, say, Richard Perle
and Paul Wolfowitz, whose heroic military service has long been
the stuff of legend?

Unfortunately
for the world, the president’s bedtime perusal of Cohen’s Supreme
Command may set his childish imagination aflame with visions
of Great Statesmanship. “Damn,” he may think, expelling a masculine
expletive, “I too can be a Lincoln or a Churchill.” Devoutly may
we all hope that the opportunity evades him, for both of those storied
“statesmen” were monsters whose hands were stained beyond cleansing
with innocent blood. Yet a man would need an adult sensibility to
understand such realities, and Bush II, it seems clear, has a mind
that never matured, if indeed it had the potential for such maturation
in the first place. Manifestly, he is but a boy playing with immense,
lethal toys. Yet when he says jump, legions of heavily armed men
ask: how high?

When
word got out that Bush was reading a book, reporters sought out
gurus to cogitate on this strange development and to cough up appraisals,
and those gurus, being deep thinkers, could not resist suggesting
other books that the president might profitably read, should he
ever decide again to read a book. One talking head recommended Sun
Tzu’s Art
of War
. Another touted October
Fury
, Peter Huchthausen’s book on the Cuban missile crisis.
Still another sage pointed to Churchill’s three volumes on World
War II, as if the Shrub were capable of such heavy lifting.

Very
well, I can play this game. I recommend that the president read
“The Constitution of the United States.” It’s short; he can handle
it. And, after all, it’s what he swore to “preserve, protect, and
defend” when he took office, so he might have some interest in reading
it. If he’s really pressed for time, he can skip everything except
Article II, Section 2, which in just three short paragraphs describes
the constitutional duties of the president of the United States.
Sure enough, as the president’s flunkies never cease telling the
press, the president’s first constitutional power is to “be Commander
in Chief of the Army and Navy.” But that’s all, along those lines:
just to be commander in chief. There’s not even so much as a hint
that the president has constitutional authority to commit the country
to war – that power is obviously lodged in Article I, where
the powers of Congress are enumerated. Certainly, the Constitution
does not authorize the executive to engage the nation’s armed forces
in a “preemptive war” against Iraq, a small, impoverished country
halfway around the world that does not now pose a serious threat
to the security of the American people who have the wit to steer
clear of it and its immediate environs.

If
the president should want to read further, perhaps to find out how
the powers of the presidency have been so vastly and unjustifiably
enlarged over time, until presidents now consider themselves warranted
in acting as absolute tyrants over their own people and those of
other countries as well, he might well read two books edited by
John V. Denson, The
Costs of War
(1997) and Reassessing
the Presidency
(2001).

Clemenceau
famously declared that war is too important to be left to the generals.
It’s a no-brainer to see that war is too important to be left to
the likes of Bush, Cohen, Perle, Wolfowitz, and company.

August
28, 2002

Robert
Higgs [send him mail]
is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent
Institute
, editor of The
Independent Review
,
and author of Crisis
and Leviathan
.

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