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The President in Chains

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Posted from Senator Hart's new blog at Matters of Principle.

White House GateIt has been powerfully argued that the national security state, inaugurated in 1947 and greatly expanded ever since, created a more powerful national executive than our Founders anticipated and that this power structure now both handcuffs the president and compels him to become a virtual monomaniacal figure. [“Entangled Giant,” New York Review of Books, October 8, 2009, Gary Wills]

The National Security Act of 1947 was the statutory basis for defining America’s role in the world post-World War II and for conducting the Cold War.  It established a new Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the United States Air Force as a new military service.  For more than six decades, it has also been the source of authority for the president as commander-in-chief.

Despite the fact that our Constitution, Article I, section 8, gives Congress solely the power to “provide for the common defense” and “declare War,” it is not accidental that no declaration of war has been authorized since 1941, even while we waged war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other venues.  Presidents now decide when and where we will wage war.

Gary Wills bolsters his provocative argument by listing all of the George W. Bush “security” measures quietly adopted and approved by the new Obama administration.  His argument is not that President Obama was a closet neo-conservative who managed to fool the voters.  Rather, he says, the national security state has become a kind of powerful prison with the president as warden.  He has authority over it, but he cannot escape it.

This helps explain the demented insistence on the part of the Bush administration to create, or perhaps merely ratify, the “unitary executive,” a notion based on the premise that all executive power resides in the president and Congress has no authority to question his actions as they relate to national security.  In this context “national security” is so broadly defined as to include virtually everything.

All the Bush advisors were trying to do was formalize a six decade trend, the concentration of power in the commander-in-chief.

All this might make some plausible sense, but only if two things were true: one, that we are now locked into a kind of semi-permanent era of conflict and danger; and two that James Madison and his colleagues had not gone to considerable pains to create a genius system of checked-and-balanced government where power is concentrated in no single branch.

We should be concerned less about whether Bush officials are now happy with the concentrated power they have passed on to their successors and more about what James Madison would think about all this.

To comment on this article, please visit the article at Senator Hart's new blog:  http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/?p=191.

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Garry Wills - The New York Review of Books