Presidential Dictatorship: Not Thinking Things Through

Let me get this straight: You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands — and your plan is to blackmail this person?… Good luck.

~ Bruce Wayne’s confidante and tech adviser Lucius Fox, confronting accountant Coleman Rose when the number-cruncher tries to expose Batman’s secret identity

Some of Barack Obama’s most impassioned conservative critics see him as an incipient dictator bent on radically transforming the United States into a socialist dystopia through the exercise of unfiltered executive power.

Many of those same critics denounce Obama for being insufficiently ruthless in using arbitrary presidential power to kill and imprison people. Their plan, apparently, is to goad that incipient dictator into becoming a fully realized despot.

Writing in Investor’s Business Daily, attorney Ernest S. Christian and economist Gary A. Robbins — the former a veteran of the Ford administration, the latter a Reagan administration alumnus — tidily encapsulate the conservative Republican critique of Obama the embryonic dictator:

“Too many overreaching laws give the president too much discretion over too many aspects of our lives. There’s no end to the harm an out-of-control president can do…. [Barack Obama] is undermining our constitutional traditions: The rule of law and our Anglo-Saxon concepts of private property hang in the balance. Obama may be the most ‘consequential’ president ever.”

In fact, Obama is nothing less than “an alien in the White House,” they write, borrowing an expression coined by Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal.

“A wounded rampaging president can do much damage — and, like Caesar, the evil he does will live long after he leaves office, whenever that might be,” they continue. There is even the possibility that Obama would remain in office in defiance of law and the will of the electorate, since the “overgrown, un-pruned power of the presidency to reward, punish and intimidate may now be so overwhelming that his re-election in 2012 is already assured — Chicago-style.”

The authors appear to believe that the formidable powers exercised by Obama somehow originated with him — or, at very least, that Republican occupancy of the White House immunizes the office against depravity.

While painting Obama as a singular threat to liberty and Bill Clinton as a degenerate who “lowered the culture” of an electorate that twice elected him, they insist that “George W. Bush stood up for America, albeit sometimes clumsily.”

Translated into Roman terms, the authors would have us believe that Clinton was the corrupt, self-absorbed adolescent Elagabalus, and Obama either the depraved Nero or the despotic Diocletian — but Bush the Younger, heck, he was Claudius, a relatively well-intentioned, albeit physically maladroit and verbally challenged, legitimate heir.

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In fact, Obama is not materially different from his predecessor in any significant way. Mssrs. Christian and Robbins depict Obama as a unique threat to our “Anglo-Saxon” tradition of liberty protected by law. But it was Bush — acting under the influence of his Sith Master, Dick Cheney — who disemboweled the habeas corpus guarantee, the foundation of common law protections of individual rights. Granted, Obama has embraced and enlarged on Bush’s actions, but the damage was done before the “alien” occupied the Oval Office.

Perhaps Christian and Robbins intend to intimate that the threat Obama poses to the “Anglo-Saxon” tradition is a matter of identity, rather than performance, given that the chief damage was done by Bush the All-American Boy, rather than Obama the “alien.”

During the reign of Bush the Lesser, Marc Thiessen — now enjoying a sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute — was one of the Imperator’s scriptwriters. Since the end of that regime, Thiessen has continued to evangelize on behalf of torture, murder by executive decree, and other key tenets of the Bush-Cheney doctrine of totalitarian presidential power.

Thiessen has done nothing to conceal his disdain for the incumbent president; he is firmly in the camp of those who see Obama as a subversive and aspiring tyrant. Yet in a recent Washington Post column, Thiessen called for that same neo-Leninist to employ extraordinary means to abduct WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

“Assange is a non-U.S. citizen operating outside the territory of the United States,” observes Thiessen. “This means the government has a wide range of options for dealing with him. It can employ not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring Assange to justice [sic] and put his criminal syndicate out of business.”

This could mean sending a CIA or even a military team to snatch Assange off the streets of Iceland, Belgium, or other friendly countries unwilling to surrender him to Washington, Thiessen insists. It also means using the newly created U.S. CyberCommand to interdict WikiLeaks’ access to the Web: “With a stroke of his pen, the president can authorize USCYBERCOM to protect American and allied forces by eliminating WikiLeaks’ ability to disseminate classified information that puts their lives at risk,” Thiessen insists.

In other words, Thiessen is eager to see the dreaded Obama deploy kidnapping teams and throw the internet “kill switch,” and will hector him mercilessly until he does — making sure to season those critiques of presidential weakness with dire predictions regarding what he has described as Obama’s despotic designs.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, Thiessen’s comrade at National Review, likewise laments the supposed fact that Barack Obama — whom he has described as a “neo-communist” — has been diffident and tentative in exercising presidential power.

In an address last March in an event sponsored by Hillsdale College, McCarthy chided Obama for not emulating Andrew Jackson’s example as military governor of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

On December 15, 1814 — shortly before the storied “Battle of New Orleans” — Jackson issued a decree announcing that it was his “unalterable determination rigidly to execute the martial law in all cases which should come before [my] province.” The city would be run as an armed camp. A 9:00 PM curfew was imposed, and anyone found on the streets after that hour would “be apprehended as spies and held for examination.”

Following the battle — regarded as the only significant American victory, although the War of 1812 had already ended — Jackson refused to restore civilian government. In March, nearly two months after the climactic battle, a member of the Louisiana senate named Louis Louailler published an anonymous letter in the Louisiana Courier condemning the continued state of martial law as an affront to “our oath of making the Constitution respected.”

“It is high time the laws should resume their empire,” wrote Senator Louailler, who also demanded that the dozens of civilians held in military custody be brought before civilian courts and either charged or released.

As if anticipating Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction-era dictum — “Whenever you hear a man prating about the Constitution, spot him as a traitor” — Jackson treated this invocation of the U.S. Constitution as the act of a British spy.

He first commissioned publication of a propaganda sheet called Friend of the Laws that pointedly warned New Orleans residents that those found guilty of “espionage” within the “armed camp” would be subject to immediate execution. He then dispatched agents to learn the identity of his anonymous critic and arrest him.

Once Louailler was in military custody, he was accused of acting with “the direct and manifest object [of bringing] the military authority into contempt,” as well as fomenting sedition by “stirring up discontent and mutiny in the camp” — meaning the City of New Orleans.

Some of Louailler’s constituents filed an appeal with U.S. District Judge Dominick Augustin Hall, who issued a writ of habeas corpus.

“Instead of responding to the writ as directed,” McCarthy admiringly recalls, Jackson “had Judge Hall arrested.” Jackson charged the judge of “aiding[,] abetting, and executing mutiny within the camp” and threw him into the same cell holding Louailler. Shortly thereafter, Judge Hall was marched a short distance outside the “camp” and released.

A few weeks later, Louailler — a civilian legislator — was subjected to a court martial on numerous charges, including espionage, “illegal and improper conduct,” “disobedience to orders,” and “writing a willful and corrupt libel.”

To his credit, Louailler refused to recognize the jurisdiction of that spurious court, and also rejected an offer of amnesty “by which they had sought to brand me a criminal.” He spent years working to restore his reputation.

Alas, sighs McCarthy, “We’ve come a long way from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” — the latter, presumably, a timid milquetoast scandalously unwilling to punish dissent through summary imprisonment, and exile judges who object to such abuses of due process.

My question to McCarthy would be this: Do you really want Obama to exercise those powers? Would we really be better off if Obama — the incumbent “wartime Commander-in-Chief” — treated criticism of his actions as sedition, arrested his critics, and imprisoned judges who issued writs demanding that the government justify its actions?

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As it happens, Obama’s behavior in office isn’t that far removed from the totalitarian ideal espoused by Thiessen, McCarthy, and their ilk.

The indefatigable — and entirely irreplaceable — Glenn Greenwald of Salon points out that the Obama administration, building on the precedents set by Thiessen and McCarthy’s former boss, has created a “hit list” of people subject to summary execution on presidential orders. This includes several U.S. citizens, prominent among them the radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

When Awlaki’s father — working with the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights — filed an emergency appeal for an injunction to prevent the extra-judicial state murder of his son, “a significant and extraordinary problem arose,” notes Greenwald: Regulations issued by the Treasury Department under the Bush administration “prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with individuals labeled by the Government as ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists,’ and those regulations specifically bar lawyers from providing legal services to such individuals without a special ‘license’ from the Treasury Department specifically allowing such representation.”

“On July 16, roughly two weeks after Awlaki’s father retained the ACLU and CCR to file suit, the Treasury Department slapped that label on Awlaki,” Greenwald continues. “That action would have made it a criminal offense for those organizations to file suit on behalf of Awlaki or otherwise provide legal representation to him without express permission from the U.S. Government.”

Timothy Geithner, the career criminal in charge of the Treasury Department, has condescended to issue the requested license, thereby permitting Awlaki’s father to press his legal challenge. This also preserves the supposed authority of the executive branch to grant or deny — on any whimsical basis it considers appropriate — permission to attorneys seeking to defend the legal rights of people on the president’s “kill list.”

Last January, after Awlaki was accused of inciting the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Flight 253, his father was asked why he didn’t encourage his son to return to the United States to confront the charges.

“I will do my best to convince my son to do this,” Awlaki told CNN, but he understandably doesn’t trust a government that claims the right to execute his son without trial — or even formal criminal charges.

“They want to kill my son,” he pointed out. “How can the American government kill one of their own citizens?”

The unsettling answer to that troubling question is one terrifying word: “easily.” Obama’s conservative critics want to make this task even easier still. They really haven’t thought this through, have they?