Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trump's Problem: The Presidency

Trump’s Problem: The Presidency
P. Schultz

            Donald Trump has a problem. And it’s the presidency.

            A president has no personal authority or power; s/he has or should have only official power, i.e., whatever powers are granted by her or his “office.” Trump, like many others, seems to think his power is personal, that it adheres in him, his person, not in his office. He is not a monarch or a pope; he is merely a president and this for only a designated amount of time.

            This distinction is difficult to keep straight because of, among other things, the White House, which was originally known as “the president’s palace.” The White House blurs the distinction between personal and official power because it is both a personal residence and an office, much as is Buckingham Palace or the Vatican. Hence, the presidency has – as both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists knew – monarchical characteristics, leading presidents to see themselves as something like monarchs, i.e., as those whose power is personal and exists whether performing official duties or not. As president, that Nixon had this idea is illustrated by his willingness to “crash a wedding” and, more importantly, by his assertion that “if the president does it, it is not illegal.” Officials can be held accountable whenever they “break the law,” but monarchs cannot.

            Being an egomaniac, Trump just assumes that his power is personal, not official. In his mind, he was elected but not to execute an office, but to, personally, “make America great again.” This is not, of course, an official duty. Hence, his office does not define or limit his power, does not confer authority upon him. It is, of course, not clear what the source of his power and authority are, but whatever their source, in his mind, Trump is not merely an official, an officer obligated to perform certain duties for the sake of the well-being of others. This is what Trump’s egotistical blustering is all about and its intensity reflects his awareness, however unconscious this might be, that he is a “public servant” and merely one of a number of executives, chief though he may be.

            This confusion is what makes Trump dangerous, just as it made Richard Nixon and others dangerous. But it is also what makes it fairly certain that the Trump presidency, like the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and Richard Nixon, will self-destruct. For although the presidency is something like a monarchy, it is best described as a disguised monarchy, because it makes those occupying that office, unlike real monarchs, accountable for their actions, both private and public. And after the presidencies LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, all of whom were held accountable for their misfeasances, malfeasances, and abuses of power, I think we can rest assured that “judgment day” is coming for Trump. He can run but he cannot hide – thanks to the Constitution.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

War and the United States

War and the United States
P. Schultz

            Rosa Brooks, a sometime employee of the Department of Defense, sometime lawyer, and full time mother, has written a book entitled: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. It is an interesting book, whose argument may be summed up as follows: Due to advancing technology, the boundary or boundaries between war and peace have been or are being erased. This is, Brooks argues, both an advance – now we can wage “humanitarian wars” and pinpoint those enemies we wish to assassinate – and a threat – overuse of the military promises to render it incapable of protecting us. So we had better come to grips with our new situation and make things right.

            A couple of thoughts struck me as I read Brooks’ monograph. First, there is no or little mention of politics throughout her book. That is, according to Brooks, we are in the midst of situation that has undermined the boundaries between war and peace but this has nothing to do with politics or, put differently, politics has nothing to do with the situation we are in. So, it’s as if all our politicians can do is to react to forces that they have had nothing to with unleashing. Which isn’t all that persuasive insofar as it is our politicians who have built, willingly and even eagerly at times, the military-industrial complex or the warfare state in which we are living. For example, the Department of Defense was created after World War II, despite the opposition, often intense and thoughtful, of conservatives. Meaning that it wasn’t necessary to create that department or to build “the Pentagon,” from which Brooks’ tales come. And if we as a nation hadn’t decided to create the Department of Defense – replacing what was called “the Department of War” – would the boundaries between war and peace be as blurry, as amorphous as they are today? In other words, we just didn’t “fall into” our current situation; we and our politicians chose it.

            Secondly, it seems to me that Brooks’ argument that our situation is new or significantly different today than in times past is questionable. As Brooks knows, Thomas Hobbes, whose political philosophy is connected to, underlines our political order, viewed the world as characterized by “a war of all against all,” that is, a “state of nature” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” or something like that. So, governments are created to render life more livable, to make human beings relatively free, prosperous, and secure. But Brooks does not recognize that this just means that “the state” doesn’t eradicate war; it merely manages war, tries to contain it, as best it can. Hence, at a very deep level, the boundaries between war and peace have always been unclear, with the phenomenon of “peace” being less real, more ephemeral than the phenomenon of “war.” It is not for nothing that our highest political office is occupied by one labeled the “commander in chief,” and not the “caretaker in chief.”

            So, if the lines between war and peace have always been less than clear, as we view our world, and if politics has something or should have something to do with clarifying these lines, then it would seem to me that without a consideration of the political choices that have been made in the name of the United States, e.g., the choice to create a Department of Defense and a Pentagon, any attempt to ameliorate our current situation for the sake of securing more peace and less war, as Brooks claims to want to do, is bound to fail. If, as I suspect, we as a people have embraced war as the means to improving the human condition, the cascade of war and, worse, of militarism will continue, destroying in its course those attempts, such as the laws of war, to limit or even humanize war.

            As an addendum, consider the following analysis by Jonathan Schell, as it seems appropriate here:

The Military Half by Jonathan Schell

            “Like most of the American military in Vietnam, the Army men who evacuated the villagers from Tuyet Diem and then destroyed the village saw what they were doing as only the first stage of a long-range benevolent plan for all of South Vietnam, in which the country would be rebuilt and then would develop a free and democratic government. The first stage of the plan – the destruction of the villages – usually went smoothly and gave rise to considerable optimism….But the second stage – the stage in which the Vietnamese and their American civil affairs advisers were to rebuild and reorganize….and were to stitch the whole society back together again – was infinitely more difficult… [A]nd the people who were to carry it out could not even begin to match the scale of destruction with their construction….Many optimistic Americans, including reporters as well as military men and civilians…, tended to set off the destruction caused by the military effort against the construction resulting from the civil affairs effort, seeing the two results as separate but balanced ‘sides’ of the war; and, looking at our commitment of men and materials, they were often favorably impressed by the size of the constructive effort, almost as though it was being carried out in one country while the military effort was being carried out in another. But, of course, the two programs were being carried out in the same provinces and villages, and the people who received the allotments of rice were the same people whose villages had been destroyed by bombs. The Vietnamese…felt the effects of the two programs, not as two abstract ‘sides’…but as a continuing experience… and, from their point of view, the aid given them … amounted to only a tiny measure of compensation … for enormous losses and suffering. Civil affairs officials … were puzzled when these hungry, tired people showed little gratitude for the help that the Americans and the GVN were giving them….” [196-98]

“Because along with the destruction of villages, American military operations brought death to many civilians, American civil affairs workers, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how well supplied they might someday become, could never, from the point of view of the villagers, ‘balance’ the sufferings caused by the military, or undo what they had done, which was often absolute and irreversible …. American civil affairs officials and workers faced a situation in which the cumulative effect of many abortive programs – all of them accompanied from 1965 on by the full force of the Americans’ overwhelming fire power – had been to bring disruption, destruction, and death to the country side on an immense scale and to leave among the people an indelible bitterness that no new program – unless it was a program to raise the dead – could hope to overcome.” [205-206]

Absent the power to resurrect the dead, as Schell puts it, the use of military power for humanitarian purposes is bound to fail, is bound to become inhuman.