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Bomb Power

Has modern warfare given US presidents too much power?

By David Holahan / February 16, 2010

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State By Garry Wills The Penguin Press 267 pp., $27.95


Precious few Americans can recall a time not consumed by crisis, whether the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war, oil and financial shocks, or – now – terrorism and global warming. In the modern 24/7 media age, we also ingest a steady diet of lesser emergencies du jour. Most of us grew up with the concept of “The Button” – the fear that our president may be obliged to push it at any moment, in the time it takes to swat a fly, which would destroy our enemies – and very likely ourselves, as well.

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In such a relentlessly scary world, it was inevitable that the powers of the US presidency would grow. After all, how many fingers can fit on the top of a button – surely not 535? In his latest book, Bomb Power, Garry Wills argues persuasively that this concentration of power, and the concomitant expansion and secrecy of our national security state, began with the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs, and found its apogee during the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Our empire, Wills writes, is unlike previous historical examples and has been shaped by the exigencies of the atom and hydrogen bombs, which were deemed crucial to keeping the Soviet Union at bay: “America ... needed secure places and ships carrying nuclear weapons, and secure regimes providing storage facilities and launching pads for our missiles.”

The idea of war by presidential fiat – which seemed to make sense in a nuclear age – soon would be applied to conventional conflicts and even third-world dust-ups, as well as to tangential areas of government authority. In advancing the power of their office, presidents kept secrets from Congress (even from their own cabinets), created off-the-books budgets for covert operations that included assassinations of foreign leaders, and usurped congressional power where they could. For example, presidents increasingly have taken to approving bills passed by Congress with accompanying “signing statements” that express the executive’s views on, or objections to all or parts of the new law, with the clear implication that he may not enforce it rigorously, or will do so only as he sees fit.

George W. Bush holds the record, of course, objecting to 1,400 sections of bills he signed. Nowadays the executive wants to have the last word.

The Bush-Cheney administration broke new ground when it created military tribunals outside the existing court systems to try enemy combatants. In addition to bestowing the power to declare war on the Congress, the US Constitution gives the legislative branch the authority to establish and manage courts, Wills points out. One wonders: Where are the strict constructionists when we need them? In times of unending crisis, it is the president, not the nattering House and Senate, who steps into the breach and decides whether, for example, the nation should honor its commitment to the Geneva Convention, which Alberto Gonzales, attorney general under George W. Bush, termed “quaint” and “obsolete” when it came to the treatment of prisoners of war.


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