American Caesar

The following article is from the French newspaper, Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2002. It looks at various aspects of politics and power in relation to the war on terror. The original article can be found on line at (though you may need to subscribe to read this particular one).

American Caesar; Background to Washington's War on Terror
By Philip S Golub
January 2002

Foreign adventures have helped the Bush administration buttress its vulnerable domestic base. Post-September national security has justified an increase in executive power, even in areas unrelated to military operations. Executive power over law and enforcement has grown quickly, worrying those Americans who still believe in the separation of powers.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the American right has dreamed of restoring the country's imperial might. In addition to implementing neo-liberal economic and social policies, the conservative [counter] revolution of the 1980s sought to revitalise wounded patriotism, restore United States military glory and reinstate the executive branch's autonomy, which had been mostly ceded to the legislature and judiciary after the fall of Saigon and Watergate. The US, with its relatively weak federal government, is paradoxical: when vociferous critics of government get power, they try to entrench governmental prerogatives, most notably the right to wage war.

During his two terms in office (1980-88), Ronald Reagan, that famous champion of smaller government, presided over the largest peacetime military expansion in US history and a resurgence in clandestine CIA operations (1). Reagan's successor, George Bush (1989-93), although skilled on the global stage, was a sorry figure at home. Bush pursued Reagan's path, remobilising US national security in the aftermath of the cold war. Yet both Reagan and Bush failed to see policies through to their logical conclusion.

Once thought to be fated to political mediocrity and political impotence, George Bush Jnr seeks vastly expanded executive power, centred on US national security; this goal is fast becoming a reality. In the light of the events of 11 September and the war in Afghanistan the US's third hi-tech military victory in 10 years the former Texas governor now styles himself as an American Caesar, which neither Reagan nor Bush Snr accomplished. The Washington Post wrote that the 11 September attacks and the war in Afghanistan had considerably accelerated the dynamic of reinforced presidential powers sought by the Bush administration; the president now enjoyed a status of domination outstripping that of all post-Watergate presidents, even rivalling that of Franklin D Roosevelt (2).

"Domination" is a fitting term. Indeed, every war has both a foreign and a domestic agenda; Aristotle reminds us that a tyrant declares war "to deny his subjects leisure and to impose on them the constant need for a leader" (3).

George Bush Jnr is no tyrant, merely the fluky winner of a bitterly contested election. He did not initiate the present military hostilities. But the war against terrorism, which Bush has described as an "enduring" one, has enabled him to reassert American might and consolidate his personal political power. Bush is displaying US military and technological supremacy abroad while underscoring as his father and Bill Clinton did in Iraq the lasting value of force in the post-cold war period. As a result, strategic equations are being rewritten globally.

Domestically, the war has prompted the revival of the National Security State (4), permitting Bush to reassert his authority and justify the marginalisation of the legislature and judiciary. To demolish the semi-authoritarian state, Bush is building a strong executive, presenting a unified front while showing interventionist and go-it-alone tendencies.

A parallel judicial system

In a spirit of wilful submissiveness, the US Senate (controlled by the Democrats) and House of Representatives passed the USA Patriot Act in late September, relinquishing considerable control (5). The act grants the executive branch extraordinary powers, including the secret and indefinite detention of "aliens" (non-citizens) whose status is deemed "irregular". An executive order on 13 November created exceptional military tribunals. More than 1,200 people arrested after 11 September were still in custody in December, yet no one knows who they are or what crimes they are accused of (6).

The detainees and their families have no access to the evidence that will be used against them. Instituted without input from either Congress or the Supreme Court, the exceptional military tribunals have the authority to impose prison sentences, pass judgment and execute those found guilty. "Terrorists" and "war criminals" will be identified as such by executive power alone, based on secret testimony and evidence. Secrecy will also apply to the meeting places, proceedings, charges, deliberations, judgments and composition. Unlike regular military tribunals, these defendants enjoy no right of appeal, even when they face death.

According to the New York Times, such outrageous assaults on the US rule of law, which in theory applies equally to all those within its jurisdiction, are tantamount to "creating a parallel judicial system" (7). US citizens, including terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, will continue to appear before the regular civil courts. The exceptional military tribunals are reserved for foreign nationals, whether resident in the US or not. The executive is establishing a paralegal institution with wide-ranging powers of investigation and intervention, operating within the existing US legal framework but exempt from the rule of law. The Pentagon will be prosecuting the war, assigning guilt and dispensing justice.

The executive is substantially expanding its intervention in US public life, too. By eliminating the Supreme Court's function as final arbiter and relegating Congress to political impotence, Bush is questioning the separation of powers, a cornerstone of US democracy.

This authoritarian shift is virtually unprecedented in recent US history. Even at the depths of the cold war, the US executive did not stoop to such sweeping measures, although it did resort to witch-hunts, censorship and blacklists. The civil rights movement suffered violent repression against governmental secrecy and mendacity; the FBI's power grew enormously; and illegal operations, both foreign and domestic, were undertaken. But the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam "limited wars" never gave rise to the creation of a parallel judicial system controlled by the president and national security. According to the right-wing libertarian editorialist William Safire usually an enthusiastic Republican supporter these recent actions amount to "a seizure of dictatorial power" (8). The essayist and researcher Chalmers Johnson has reached a similar conclusion: we are in the midst of "a latent military coup d'état, perhaps an irreversible one, which, like the former GDR [German Democratic Republic] will transform the country into a nation of informers in which only white Mormons will be safe" (9).

The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century

Although Johnson may overstate the case, it does seem evident that Bush's maximum-security state is in conflict with US political traditions; it will only achieve institutional status if the war drags on. That is the implicit meaning of the unvarying message relayed by Bush's imperial presidency, according to which the events of 11 September constituted the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century, the beginning of global warfare. Bush's worldwide fight against terrorism is thus unencumbered by geography or time constraints.

War unencumbered by geography: once the military campaign in Afghanistan is over, the war's "second phase" may commence. This phase has been in the offing since late September and may focus initially on clandestine terrorist networks in the Philippines, Nepal and Colombia (see article by Janette Habel). US special agents are already at work in the Philippines, where they draw on their anti-insurrectional expertise; they will soon arrive in Somalia. A Somali-US agreement granting the US access to the port of Berbera (on the Gulf of Aden) is due to be signed soon. The third phase will involve operations against an even more dangerous foe, Iraq.

War unencumbered by time constraints: the US administration has continuously reiterated that the fight will be long perhaps endless. Once Osama bin Laden has been eliminated, the focus will shift to al-Qaida's worldwide networks. But since treating symptoms alone has never cured an illness, al-Qaida's members will eventually be replaced by new recruits. If some scenarios prove correct, the war could drag on for 50 years, or "well beyond our lifetimes", in the words of Vice-President Dick Cheney, since 11 September in a secret bunker near Washington DC. As was the case during the 40-year cold war, all the resources of governmental power will be brought to bear.

This coherent and unvarying message is designed more for the ears of the US public than for world opinion. The goal is to bring about and legitimise a permanent mobilisation of the people behind their president. For now, Bush's leadership is uncontested; once the visible war in Afghanistan is over, he may have to face unhappy voters dealing with worsening economic circumstances.

Governmental intervention in the economy which certain naïve observers have seen as "a return to politics", finally freed from globalisation's constraints have so far exclusively benefited large corporations and the military-industrial complex, the two traditional pillars of Republican presidencies. The US government has spent tens of billions of dollars on direct and indirect aid: $15bn in direct aid for the airlines, $25bn in indirect aid for businesses, which have been granted retroactive tax relief, and $20bn in direct transfers to the Pentagon, whose budget now stands at $329bn.

But no relief has been offered to working people or the growing numbers of the unemployed, who currently represent 5.6% of the working population. According to Dick Armey, the Republican House majority leader, payments to the unemployed "would not be in keeping with the American spirit". Given the effects of the recession, many Americans will be joining the ranks of the jobless in the run-up to the 2002 Congressional elections and the 2004 presidential election.

Without a state of constant mobilisation, which only fear can sustain, Bush will have difficulty staying the course. Perhaps he won the war in Afghanistan too quickly. The US could soon grow weary of Bush's new imperial presidency.

  1. Under Reagan, the US Defence Department's share ofthe federal budget rose from 23.5% to 27%, its 1975level. In addition, the CIA undertook the two largestclandestine operations in the post-Vietnam war period, inAfghanistan and Nicaragua.
  2. Dana Milbank, International Herald Tribune, 21November 2001.
  3. Aristotle, Politique, Hermann, Paris, 1996.
  4. See Philip S Golub, "America's imperial longings", LeMonde diplomatique English edition, July 2001.
  5. See Michael Ratner, "US: no longer the land of thefree", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, November2001.
  6. With the exception of French national ZacariasMoussaoui, accused on 11 December in a US civil court ofhaving taken part in the preparation for the 11 Septemberattacks.
  7. Editorial, New York Times, 2 December 2001.
  8. William Safire, "Seizing Dictatorial Power", New YorkTimes, 15 November 2001.
  9. Quoted in an interview with the author.

Translated by Luke Sandford

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  • Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

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