During a televised football game on Sunday, an announcer welcomed the members of the U.S. military viewing the game in 177 nations around the world. When the news came on, the topic was the same one it’s been for weeks, speculation as to whether and how much a single individual will escalate war by sending tens of thousands of additional troops to nation number 177, Afghanistan.
Somehow it remains eternally controversial to mention the imperial presidency. Yet the positions on Afghanistan in the United States are limited to “The president should escalate the war,” “The president should not escalate the war” and “The president should do whatever he wants.” Some people have other things to say on the topic, but almost nobody refuses to hold one of those three positions.
One of the few holdouts is a document rather than a person, a document known as the U.S. Constitution. The funny thing is that the people who wrote this document over two centuries ago very intentionally and explicitly created a legislature with the power and duty to decide when and where to fight wars, to raise the funding to pay for them, and to oversee the military. The executive was to execute the will of the Congress, including in his duty as commander in chief of the military.
The wisdom here was not just in giving the power to decide on wars, and the extent of those wars, to a different branch of government than the commander in chief, while nonetheless giving him (or her) civilian command of the military. The wisdom extended to giving the legislature the power to decide virtually everything else, what laws to make in any area and, in every area, what money to raise or spend.
Representatives were to represent relatively small numbers of people. Their constituents, it was expected, might be able to persuade them to act on behalf of majority opinion. The idea of the entire nation lobbying the executive is almost laughably more challenging, even without considering the problems with lobbying an executive to make decisions only Congress is constitutionally able to make, not to mention decisions on whether to engage in massive crimes forbidden by treaties to which our nation is a party.
But Congress is in such bad shape that many people have had many years to learn that their permanent-incumbent representative is virtually immune to public influence. Meanwhile, the president is new, and his vague advertising campaign has left him open to wishful misinterpretation. Plus, he’s a member of the good team.
If President George W. Bush had called something serving 2 to 5 percent of Americans a “public option,” MoveOn.org would have attacked him for deceiving the country. When Obama does that, all the activist groups celebrate his public service. When Bush continued and escalated wars, the more principled peace groups told the House of Representatives to deny him the money. After 11 months, we are just beginning to drag a few of the better peace groups partially away from their lobbying of the new emperor, in order to work on denying the money.
I recently read an excellent book called “The Vanishing of a Species?” which Peter Gretener wrote, for the most part, 30 years ago, but which his family just published posthumously. This book looks at the fate of our species in as wise a way as anyone has in the generation since it was written. It examines, among other things, the question of whether humans are aggressive due to nature or nurture, and whether this aggressiveness must expand with the greater density of humans caused by population growth. But Gretener never considers the possibility of a government misrepresenting its people, of people outgrowing aggressiveness but their government nonetheless attacking others.
Gretener believes that human wisdom has not kept pace with human technology, thus creating the possibility of economic and environmental collapse. I believe, on the contrary, that human wisdom has declined rather than holding steady. We’ve lost the ability to live sustainably or peacefully. And we’ve lost the understanding of how governments can be structured to check our inevitable abuses.