President Bush has taken a lot of flak for remarks about Taiwan regarding the eventuality of Chinese aggression. Here were his exact words: "Our nation will help Taiwan defend itself. At the same time, we support the one-China policy, and we expect the dispute to be resolved peacefully."
Geopolitical sophisticates will bray about Bush's subversion of the "strategic ambiguity" doctrine (every diplomatic notion is a "doctrine" nowadays); supporters of Taiwanese autonomy will point out the illogic of a U.S.-Taiwan defense pact that forecloses self-determination for the island.
Thus far, however, pundits haven't made a peep about the (anti)constitutional dimension to Bush's pledge. The ostensibly conservative William F. Buckley Jr. in fact asserts an obligatory executive role for Taiwan's defense.
Conservatism in an American context suggests valuing constitutional government. Key to American constitutional government is federal republicanism, or anti-monarchic, decentralized governance.
The colonial experience soured Americans on monarchy so acutely that several delegates to the Constitutional Convention opposed a unitary executive branch. George Mason desired an executive of three persons; Edmund Randolph referred to a single executive as "the fetus of monarchy."
Anti-monarchic sentiment was of such pervasiveness that even two of American history's most ardent nationalists appreciated legislative primacy, especially over the grievous matter of war:
"The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies, all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 69)
"The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us." (Abraham Lincoln, letter to William H. Herndon, February 15, 1848)
The twentieth century witnessed a revolutionary inversion occur between president and Congress with respect to war-making. As an emblematic example, Harry Truman leapfrogged the legislature in deploying troops to Korea via the United Nations a relatively forgotten intervention that portended our equally unconstitutional, supra-nationally orchestrated slaughter in the Balkans. (I'm not an apologist for a truculent bum like Slobodan Milosevic, and how his truculence justifies our illegal aerial campaign of destruction and death eludes me.)
We have reached the point where a "conservative" Vice President accepts presidential usurpation of the martial realm and the decidedly un-conservative Noam Chomsky criticizes "the doctrine of Executive War in violation of the Constitution" (The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, p. 97). This, needless to say, is a peculiar state of affairs.
Of course, Congress is ultimately culpable for its inversive capacity. As John C. Calhoun observed, "The Constitutional power of the President never was or could be formidable, unless it was accompanied by a Congress which was prepared to corrupt the Constitution." A president's bellicose ambition would be a nonstarter if our "representatives" only asserted their purview.
A constitutional process exists for defending Taiwan if China attacks. The determinative party in that process is not the current occupant of the White House.
President Bush has assumed, nay arrogated the voice of Congress with his remarks on Taiwan. Indignation from conservative legislators is nowhere to be found. The Constitution is apparently a gwailo (foreigner) to the GOP's standard-bearers, their oath to defend it notwithstanding.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol noted during the litigation-laden aftermath of last year's election, "Mr. Bush has run as an apostle of compassionate conservatism. But the present crisis suggests that a revival of constitutional conservatism is the more urgent and important task" ("Crowning the Imperial Judiciary," The New York Times, November 28, 2000).
If conservatives' silence on President Bush's imperial pronouncements is any indicator, the revival Kristol prescribes is far, far away.
May 7, 2001