Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Glimpse of Despotism

The Washington Post's four-day epic, behind-the-scenes look at Dick Cheney's tenure as Vice President is, whether one supports Cheney or not, a portrait of creeping despotism. There we see through glints and anecdotal shards how one of the most powerful men in the world operates from behind a wall kept deliberately opaque, shunning credit and fame for far-reaching results. And we get an idea of how one man can garner such immense power through experience, energy, certainty, and sheer force of will.

So is Cheney's an enlightened despotism that cuts through bureaucracy to efficiently serve the country's needs at a time of war, or simply a dark era of executive power run amok? It is neither, or rather it is not that simple. And it is also the wrong question to ask.

There is an allure to the get-it-done strongman, especially in time of crisis. The hero who bends the rules of a stultified bureaucracy to save what's really important is a staple of pop culture. People around the world rail against red tape and arcane rules that in practice ignore the people they're meant to help. And there's something to it. The exercise of that kind of authority has its advantages, efficiency, clarity, and results among them.

The problem is, concentrating so much power in one person makes a lot of people dependent on his or her character and judgment. Perhaps democracy's greatest virtues are the accountability that even the powerful have to the people, and the diffusion of power. All those checks and balances reduce efficiency, but make it hard for one person or a small group to take over.

And yet to an extent, that is what we've allowed to happen these last six-plus years. To be sure, Dick Cheney has far from absolute control of the federal government. But he has shown what a man with extraordinary personal focus and talents can have if he uses secrecy and tight control of information to its greatest advantage. He and others in this administration have set so many damaging precedents that it will be difficult to pull back from some of them.

It shouldn't have been this way. From Part I of the Post series:

When James A. Baker III was tapped to be White House chief of staff in 1980, he interviewed most of his living predecessors. Advice from Cheney filled four pages of a yellow legal pad. Only once, to signify Cheney's greatest emphasis, did Baker write in all capital letters:



Cheney told Baker, according to the notes, that an "orderly paper flow is way you protect the Pres.," ensuring that any proposal has been tested against other views. Cheney added:

"It's not in anyone's interest to get an 'oh by the way decision' -- & all have to understand that. Can hurt the Pres. Bring it up at a Cab. mtg. Make sure everyone understands this."

Excellent advice, but Cheney unfortunately has run the Vice President' office nearly the opposite way. He has kept vital information to himself and trusted aides only, bypassing even high-level cabinet members who might disagree with his agenda. Documents and records have been destroyed, and administration officials repeatedly blindsided by decisions. The list goes on in shocking detail.

The corruption of power is a cliche, and it is an easy morass into which to fall. Cheney has made the mistake of so many powerful men throughout history, which is that he is so certain that he is right and indispensible, that his agenda's achievement is so critical, that he need not follow the rules. All that matters is pushing through the right things.

Take the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Cheney saw its enforcement at Klamath Falls, OR as being in conflict with economic needs of farmers, but the law and science were clear against him. But for Cheney, to paraphrase Clausewitz, science is just politics by other means. So he got the floodgates opened by making sure that other scientists came out with a report stating the effects of allowing irrigation in the Falls area were unclear. Unfortunately, the aftereffects were not:

Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

On issue after issue, Cheney has put ideology over established procedure and law, delivering tortured justifications for doing what he wants to do instead of what the executive branch has been mandated to do.

It is not that he is cravenly serving his own ends; it seems clear he sincerely believes he is America's first (or perhaps second) servant. It is that he has forgotten his own lessons, that no one is infallible, that successful politics is not just machination and willpower. Ideas and conduct must be stood up to scrutiny both to obtain buy-in and to make them better, and he has systematically done just the opposite, pushing through his agenda with as little transparency as possible.

The same applies to President Bush, who suffers from the same certainty that he is right, and the additional crippling handicap that he is uninterested in complexity or facts that may cloud what he already feels to be true.

What about accountability to public opinion? Though far from a perfect roadmap to truth on complex issues, there is often wisdom to be found in a poll. But Bush and Cheney seem to have treated opinion not so much with skepticism as disdain:

"The only person in Washington who cares less about his public image than David Addington [Cheney's counsel] is Dick Cheney," said a former White House ally. "What both of them miss is that ..... in times of war, a prerequisite for success is people having confidence in their leadership. This is the great failure of the administration -- a complete and total indifference to public opinion."

Convinced of the rightness of their mission, this administration has assiduously avoided and even actively shut themselves off from opposing viewpoints and contrary evidence. Where someone was not sufficiently ideological or loyal (read: unquestioning), they were forced out in one way or another. If not a full-fledged mental illness, this faith-based blindness is at the least an extreme personality trait that has done massive damage across vast swaths of policy decisions. And far be it from Congress or the courts to stop them:

According to participants in the debate [about torturing enemy combatants], the vice president stands by the view that Bush need not honor any of the new judicial and legislative restrictions. His lawyer, they said, has recently restated Cheney's argument that when courts and Congress "purport to" limit the commander in chief's warmaking authority, he has the constitutional prerogative to disregard them.

Statements like these might be the comical ravings of a power-drunk lunatic about to crash if this were a film. And perhaps the sheer ludicrousness of pronouncements made by this administration, coupled with its secrecy and public relations that stands in opposition to its actions, have made it hard for us to come to grips with just how awful and dangerous they have been. Speaking for myself, the old adage that a big lie is easier to sell than a little one held true. As guarded as I am against extremism and conspiracy theories, I simply could not believe they could be this bad.

What America has gotten from Bush and Cheney is writ small what countries always get from concentrated power: a magnification of the leaders' strengths and weaknesses. Such works when a leader is right, but can be disastrous when he or she is wrong. Their overweening intransigence only amplifies the problem.

It is fair to ask the specific results of Dick Cheney's leadership, but the more important question is whether it is a good idea to invest anyone with the kind of authority he has accumulated for himself and the administration. There is a reasonable debate to be had that executive power should increase as a result of the September 11th attacks, or that some freedom should be sacrificed to increase security. But we have not had that debate, just stilted rhetoric that frames the issues only in extremes. The power in question has been claimed and consolidated without regard to whether the public wants it, or whether other branches of government have explicitly acted against it.

As citizens, we could not have known all that was going on behind the scenes. But we can't claim ourselves not culpable for its actions either. Doing so avoids our own responsibility as voters and informed citizens. We already have an impressive group of candidates running for president in 2008, and they will follow our lead. We need to demand more of them than we have of the current administration, including ensuring that the proper role of executive power and its oversight receives its proper, public debate.

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