The Federal Government Has Damaged Our Country

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As the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, an increasing number of Americans are now questioning the wisdom of President Bush’s decision to invade. While the primary reason for people’s increased level of dissatisfaction is the number of U.S. troops killed and wounded, there are many other important reasons that Americans should be questioning not only the U.S. invasion but also U.S. foreign policy in general. With its foreign policy and its invasion of Iraq, the federal government has wreaked great damage and brought great shame on our country.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush suggested various rationales for the invasion. All of them revolved around the fact that Saddam Hussein, the unelected ruler of Iraq, was a tyrannical and dangerous dictator, one who possibly possessed WMDs.

Yet, in dealing with Saddam Hussein, Bush himself assumed dictatorial powers, thereby signaling to the world that there’s nothing wrong with a political ruler in a democracy who exercises dictatorial powers in order to oust a foreign dictator from power.

For example, early on Bush announced that he had the omnipotent power to send the entire nation into war without a congressional declaration of war. Yet how can such dictatorial power be reconciled with the legal bedrock that underlies American society — the Constitution?

The U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land in our country, delegates the power to declare war to the Congress and the power to wage war to the president. What that means is that only the Congress can determine whether the nation goes to war. If Congress decides that the nation shall go to war, the president then — and only then — has the authority to wage it. If the Congress does not declare war against another country, the president is constitutionally barred from waging it, no matter how much he desires to do so.

President Bush chose to ignore the U.S. Constitution by ordering U.S. troops into Iraq. In doing so, he sent the world the following message: While the United States is a country that has a constitution that expressly limits the president’s power with respect to war, in our system the president has the power to ignore the Constitution and exercise dictatorial powers if he believes it is in the interests of the country to do so.

But that’s not what the Constitution says. Like it or not, the Constitution is clear, and the only way it can be changed is through constitutional amendment by following the procedure outlined in the Constitution. President Bush broke the law — the law outlined in the Constitution — thereby conducting himself like a dictator, albeit democratically elected, in order to oust a foreign dictator from power.

Throughout the entire process, the Congress lay silent and supine, explicitly or implicitly supporting the president’s exercise of such dictatorial power.

Reflect on what the federal government has told the world that America stands for in terms of freedom versus dictatorship, limited government versus omnipotent government, and the “rule of law” versus the “rule of men.”

What about the congressional resolution that is supposed to have authorized the president to wage war on Iraq? Doesn’t that count as a congressional declaration of war?

First, we should keep in mind that the president’s position was very clear: While he would welcome a show of support from the Congress, he repeatedly emphasized that he did not need it. He repeatedly stated that he — and he alone — had the power to decide whether the nation would go to war against Iraq or any other nation. It is not coincidental that that type of power has also been wielded by some of the most powerful dictators in history. It was the exercise of such dictatorial power that the Framers attempted to prevent by dividing the power to declare war from the power to wage war in the Constitution.

Second, the congressional resolution never declared war on Iraq. Instead, it effectively authorized the president to make that call himself. In other words, in what can be described only as one of the most cowardly decisions in U.S. history (congressional elections were coming up and the members of Congress were scared of being accused of being unpatriotic), the Congress, in effect, delegated to the president its power to declare war on Iraq. In other words, by their resolution congressmen said, “Mr. President, we don’t want to have to make the call. You do it for us. We want to come back to Washington. We want to be reelected.”

However, as the Supreme Court affirmed long ago, the Constitution does not permit one branch of government to delegate its powers to another branch. Thus, the congressional resolution authorizing the president to decide whether to invade Iraq was a nullity under the Constitution, leaving the president with the illegal dictatorial power to both declare and wage war against Iraq.

The Framers
and war powers

One reason, obviously, for dividing the war powers was to prevent dictatorial war powers from being placed in the president. The Framers understood that, throughout history, rulers had begun wars strictly on the basis of international politics. They understood that rulers sometimes get the urge to oust foreign public officials, just as they do with respect to opposing politicians on the domestic scene. Sometimes they’ll do this by funding opposing groups or candidates with U.S. taxpayer money and sometimes by assassination or coup, but when all else fails they resort to invasions, as President Bush did with Iraq.

Thus, the Framers tried to minimize the potential for political mischief in foreign affairs by dividing the war powers between the president and the Congress.

Another reason for placing the declaration-of-war power in the Congress was to ensure as much as possible that a war was justified. Thus, the idea was that, if a president desired to send the nation into war against a foreign power, he would be required to convince an independent body of government — the Congress — of the justification for war as well as the legitimacy of the evidence supporting the justification.

Why was all this so important to the Framers? Because they feared dictatorial power, even in the hands of an elected ruler, and they recognized that, of all the enemies to liberty, war is the greatest because it provides the greatest opportunity for government officials to infringe the rights and freedoms of the people. As James Madison suggested, war is the parent of armies and with armies come the usual assaults on liberty — spending, taxes, debasement of the currency, suspension of civil liberties, fake patriotism, and the like.

Omnipotent
government in Iraq

Once the U.S. government conquered Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power, it made matters worse by bringing great shame on our nation. After decades of mocking and scoffing at “constitutional rights,” U.S. officials finally had their chance at “running a country” without being hassled by constitutional “technicalities” and federal-court interference. In other words, U.S. officials showed the world how they would run a country if they had the dictatorial power to do so.

So what type of system did federal officials, led by the Pentagon in conjunction with newly installed Iraqi officials, set up in what they called “liberated” Iraq? A system that had the following practices: gun control and gun confiscation; closing newspapers that were critical of the new regime; morals and religious police patrolling the streets of Iraqi cities and closing down alcohol and video vendors; bashing down doors and searching people and their homes and businesses without even the semblance of a search warrant; indiscriminately rounding up people and sending them to jail for an indeterminate period of time without even the semblance of an arrest warrant; denying detainees access to lawyers, due process of law, and habeas corpus; and, of course, torturing, sexually abusing, raping, and murdering people at Abu Ghraib prison.

Worst of all, all this was billed by U.S. officials as “democracy and freedom.” The message that was sent to the world was, This is not only what America stands for; this is what America considers to be a free society.

How shameful is that?

After all, let’s not forget that the very reason that prior to the invasion of Iraq the Pentagon set up its prisoner detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, which served as a model for Abu Ghraib, was to avoid the application and enforcement of the Constitution.

Thus, think about the message that Guantanamo Bay has sent the people of the world — that the U.S. Constitution is a despicable document whose principles should be avoided at all costs.

The Constitution
and Iraq

The Iraqi military adventure may be teaching Americans a very valuable lesson about the founding principles of their country and about the principles that guided the formation of the Constitution — and that those principles are more important than ever.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Constitution is not the source of people’s rights. In fact, one will search in vain for any grant of rights — be it freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of the press — in the Constitution. Instead, the Constitution is a limit on power because the Framers knew what kinds of people would inevitably be attracted to governmental power. The Iraq adventure has shown us and the world that human nature has not changed over the past 250 years — government officials with omnipotent powers, including officials from the United States, will do bad things with such power.

The reason that the Constitution is still relevant is that, without it, U.S. officials, even assuming the best of intentions, would be running the United States as they’re running Iraq. The only thing standing in their way is the wisdom and foresight of the Framers and those who enacted the Bill of Rights, along with a federal judicial branch to enforce the Constitution.

Foreign policy
and terrorism

The invasion of Iraq may also be driving home to Americans the role that U.S. foreign policy has played in engendering deep anger and hatred for our country among foreigners, especially those in the Middle East. For decades, Americans have deferred to the wisdom of federal politicians and bureaucrats to handle foreign affairs and to do whatever is necessary to “protect America’s interests abroad.” All too often the mindset has been: Do what you must but just don’t tell us about it because we’d rather not know.

The result has been the U.S. government’s support of brutal dictators, including Saddam Hussein himself, who actually received the infamous WMDs from the United States and other Western nations; the training of brutal military regimes, especially at the Pentagon’s infamous School of the Americas, in the arts of torture and suppression of liberties in the name of fighting communism and terrorism; brutal economic sanctions and embargoes, whose aim has always been “regime change,” and whose adverse consequences have always fallen on the civilian population, most notably in Cuba and Iraq; CIA assassinations, kidnappings, torture, and murders; and most recently, the kidnapping and “rendition” of terrorist suspects to brutal regimes for the purpose of torturing information out of them.

Thus, when the attacks on 9/11 took place, many Americans immediately fell for the official federal line issued from both the executive and congressional branches — that terrorism is an affliction that is rooted in foreign hatred for America’s “freedom and values.” U.S. officials knew that if they could convince people of that, the federal government could continue to have a free hand in doing what it had been doing for decades to people overseas.

The irony is that the invasion of Iraq was simply part and parcel of what the federal government has been doing to people overseas for many, many years. As war fever continues to subside in the United States, an increasing number of people may begin reflecting on the far-reaching ramifications of the Iraq invasion: tens of thousands of innocent people killed — many more innocent people than were killed on 9/11.

None of the rationales for these killings — WMDs, 9/11, war on terrorism, democracy-spreading, liberation, or whatever — can obfuscate the fact that there are real families throughout Iraq who have lost loved ones and who, therefore, are likely to be as angry about their losses as Americans are with respect to the 3,000 deaths on 9/11.

And the same holds true for the multitudes of Iraqi children who died as a result of 12 years of brutal economic sanctions, which U.S. officials said were “worth it” in terms of trying to get Saddam out of power.

As the situation in Iraq continues to spiral downward, there are increasing calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Let us hope that the American people do not settle for that as their long-term goal but instead use the Iraq military adventure to totally reevaluate U.S. foreign policy. Let us hope that they ultimately reject the paradigm of empire, militarism, and war that has held our nation in its grip for decades and that they embrace instead the paradigm of liberty, republic, and peace that guided our forefathers.

The time has come for the American people to restore our country’s moral standing in the world. The federal government has damaged and shamed our nation long enough.

January 24, 2006

Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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