Sunday, December 31, 2006

Past Imperfect, Future Tense: the Question of "Checks and Balances"

"There is a kind of conventional 'wisdom' slightly to the left of center which analyzes the United States this way: we have political democracy, but not economic democracy. It points to the 'democratic' institutions: the three branches of government and the 'checks and balances' which are presumed to prevent a monopoly of power by any one branch; the voting process for the president and Congress, especially now that women and black people have the right to vote; the Bill of Rights.

"What this viewpoint ignores is the economic basis of politics, the fact that if the economy is dominated by corporate wealth, that wealth will inevitably corrupt the political process, irrespective of the fact that on paper the institutions appear to be democratic.

"The nation’s history shows this from the start. The much-praised 'democracy' created by the Constitution after the Revolutionary War was a showpiece created by the Founding Fathers in response to popular participation in the Revolution, and rebellions in the various states afterward. In fact, the new nation was dominated by slaveholders, bondholders, merchants, and land speculators, who established a central government strong enough to put down popular protest and to serve the interests of the wealthy.

"What was established at that early point in the nation’s history continued to be true for the next two centuries and more. Any honest look at national policy would conclude that, except for certain moments when massive social movements have forced reforms (the Thirties, the Sixties), the government has legislated as the Founding Fathers did, in the interests of the wealthy classes.

"Furthermore, whatever pretense there has been for 'checks and balances' among the three branches of government evaporates when it comes to foreign policy. The expansion of the empire, first across the continent, and then across the world, has come as a result of military interventions, commanded by the president, with Congress abjectly going along, and the Supreme Court silent in the face of clear violations of the Constitution."

Howard Zinn, from the Introduction to "Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney"

The notion that the solution to the problem of Bush/Cheney and the GOP's dominance and dictatorial ways lies in the supposed restoration of a better past, a rosier past, a "past perfect" or the like disregards the ineluctable fact that this past has always been past imperfect. As Zinn points out in the excerpt above, the whole notion of "checks and balances," the equal standing between the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), has been from the start more fiction than reality. Consider, for example, the conduct of foreign policy and the invasion of Iraq under Bush/Cheney in particular. The Democrats knew or should have known that the justifications for invading Iraq were all smoke and mirrors. If they didn't they're just too stupid and credulous to be leaders. If they did realize these were lies but voted to authorize the invasion anyway, then they're gutless and have the blood on their hands of the 650,000 plus Iraqis who have died due to our immoral and illegal invasion and that of the 3,000 American service people sent to kill and die in this monstrous war.

Many people like ex-weapons inspector Scott Ritter and other experts, as well as anyone who went to the trouble of thinking skeptically about the stories emanating from the White House and from Chalabi (obligingly passed along by people like the NY Times' Judith Miller) recognized immediately that the stories about WMD were false, that the linkages between Hussein and al-Qaeda were obviously concocted and that the intelligence was being manipulated to fit the policy. I and many other people were actively involved in exposing these lies prior to the invasion. So the summation of this period by talking heads in the media and public officials that "we were all fooled" and that "everyone" believed that Iraq had WMD is utterly ridiculous.

Now comes the Democrats again talking about "reconciliation" and "uniting" and making America great again. Think about what these Democrats did when the war was being considered. Think about what the platform of Kerry and Edwards was in 2004: they planned to carry out the Iraq war more "competently" than Bush/Cheney, not to withdraw immediately. Consider what the alleged "uniter" Barack Obama told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 about Iran: "[T]he big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures [to stop its nuclear program], including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point…if any, are we going to take military action?”

Think carefully about what the Democrats did when they had the chance to filibuster - they had the numbers, let alone the moral obligation - the torture bill (the Military Commissions Act of 2006) that also stripped anyone of habeas corpus rights who at the whim of the president is designated as someone who has "materially contributed to hostilities against the United States." They let the bill pass without a real fight.

Some Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy and the GOP's Arlen Spector are now talking about possibly repealing parts of the MCA in the new Congress, but they aren't talking about getting rid of it entirely, which is what they ought to be doing. Torture is torture. What part of torture do people not understand? Not even the Nazis declared to the whole world that they were going to legalize and practice ongoing torture.

Think too about what the Democrats (and the corporate media) have done and said about the little known bill that Bush also signed the same day he signed the MCA: the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007. This act essentially abrogates the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits the use of military forces in domestic affairs). The Warner Act gives the President the power to take control of the National Guard over the objections of the state governors to enforce a "public emergency" (i.e., martial law) declared by the President. Go to the White House's webpage and read Bush's signing statement on this bill. It reads in part:

"The executive branch shall construe sections 914 and 1512 of the Act, which purport to make consultation with specified Members of Congress a precondition to the execution of the law, as calling for but not mandating such consultation, as is consistent with the Constitution's provisions concerning the separate powers of the Congress to legislate and the President to execute the laws.

"A number of provisions in the Act call for the executive branch to furnish information to the Congress or other entities on various subjects ... The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to withhold information the disclosure of which could impair foreign relations, the national security, the deliberative processes of the Executive, or the performance of the Executive's constitutional duties.


"The executive branch shall construe section 1211, which purports to require the executive branch to undertake certain consultations with foreign governments and follow certain steps in formulating and executing U.S. foreign policy, in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authorities to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch.

"As is consistent with the principle of statutory construction of giving effect to each of two statutes addressing the same subject whenever they can co-exist, the executive branch shall construe section 130d of title 10, as amended by section 1405 of the Act, which provides further protection against disclosure of certain homeland security information in certain circumstances, as in addition to, and not in derogation of, the broader protection against disclosure of information afforded by section 892 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and other law protecting broadly against disclosure of such information."

In other words, Congress passed a law that enables martial law, abrogates Posse Comitatus, gives to the President unprecedented powers to exercise emergency powers, and just to safeguard the Republic (so good of them to think of that) they include sections requiring the President to consult with a few handpicked Congresspeople before and while he's doing this. And what does Bush turn around and say? I reserve the right not to consult Congress and not to disclose what I'm doing and why. There is a word for this: dictatorship.

How many Americans know about this hoary piece of legislation? How many Americans have even HEARD of the Warner Act? How many Democrats screamed bloody murder about this Act and which ones of them are talking now about repealing it?

The future is tense because the future is up for grabs and the dangers we collectively confront are immense. We cannot move forward in a way that will really uproot and reverse the horrid direction that this regime has been taking us down without realizing deeply that the solution doesn't lie in romanticizing and thereby falsifying the past. Checks and balances between the branches of government or checks and balances between the two major parties is not going to stop this juggernaut. Only the people can do that and only the people relying on ourselves first and foremost and transforming the whole political dynamic and atmosphere in this country through mass popular action can do this.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The most recent review of "Impeach the President"

In what follows, the managing editor of Political Affairs weighs in on our book. I'm pleased that he wrote this and think it's a pretty good review. (Following his review I have a few additional comments). What Joel gets right here, most of all, is what ITP is principally designed to accomplish. He writes: "But impeachment is not the real point of the Loo/Phillips book... Impeachment is a limited recourse that, while it is a worthy goal that should be pursued against Bush et al initially by truth-seeking investigations in Congress, it will, if successful, produce little more than censure for its targets...The real aim of this book is to help generate a more substantial, long-term change."

He gets that point right, but this is actually a little inconsistent with his secondary critique of our book: that some of the chapters are aimed primarily at the politics and ideology of the Bush regime and therefore in so doing muddy the waters a little for a legal case for impeachment. What's crucial here to understand and hasn't so far been fully understood in reviews of ITP to date is that the core issue at stake in the impeachment movement is that Bush and Cheney aren't aberrations. They are rather the cutting edge representatives of the new order of American imperialism. Understanding Bush/Cheney et al as the titular representatives of a MOVEMENT, fully understanding the politics, ideology, and actual programme of these forces is therefore not a distraction but absolutely critical. The fight, in other words, isn't going to be solved either by ignoring their crimes (god forbid!) nor is it going to be solved merely (merely!?) by impeachment and removal from office of this gang of war criminals and torturers. The dire situation we find ourselves in is a product of a process that has been underway over the last three decades, here and worldwide. As I wrote in our Preface in ITP in laying out ONE part of the case:

"We face a situation today in which political institutions, public officials, the two major parties, and the mainstream and right wing media are more out of touch and at odds with the public than at any other time in this country’s history. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersch in his recent book Chain of Command put it this way: 'How did eight or nine neoconservatives . . . redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities and policies with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy that fragile?'

"How indeed? The central problem here is that truth and facts have been barricaded off from reaching most of the American people. If Americans truly knew exactly what was going on in their names, they would mass outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, scale the gates, haul these perpetrators out of the White House by their shirt collars and put them on trial immediately for crimes against humanity. This has yet to happen because the right wing has been resoundingly successful in the plans it laid beginning in the early 1970s to dramatically alter the political landscape. Through the very deep pockets of people like Rupert Murdoch, Adolph Coors and the 'Four Sisters,' they have invested tens of billions of dollars in establishing their own media empire such as Fox News and Clear Channel, their own think tanks, publishing houses, their heavy subsidy and cultivation of right wing scholars and writers, and so on. From these pulpits they have bullied, lied and twisted. Their media empire’s impact cannot be overestimated. They have cowed the Democratic Party and the mainstream media. Like the shadow cast by the immense alien ship in the movie Independence Day, Bush/Cheney and the radical right have generated a black cloud over this country. We wrote this book to help to dispel this.

"These times call for nothing less than that the people take extraordinary measures to repudiate these 'leaders.' An unprecedented mass popular upheaval is what must occur."

The OTHER part of the case of where this is coming from revolves around the dismantling of the New Deal (or more generally, the welfare state) and the rise of the Neoliberal state. Both the GOP and the Democratic Party are part and parcel of this momentous shift, both parties are in agreement that this new neoliberal order is the way to go, and this is the core reason why the Democratic Party cannot be seen as the saviours here and the core reason why they have been so compliant and complicit with the GOP. Raising people's understanding of this and where it's coming from, and on that basis mobilizing the people to act politically, is the core motivation behind ITP.

Impeachment: A Note of Caution
By Joel Wendland (posted at

The impeachment of President Bush has become an important issue. For some people on the left impeachment has even become a litmus test for the "true" progressive.

For example, I recently received an e-mail from a reader apparently with such a viewpoint. (I won’t bait the person by naming him or her, but he or she claimed ties to the Democratic Party machine in Minnesota.) This person responded to an article I wrote about a public forum in Detroit at which Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) spoke about a "people’s agenda" for the new Congress.

In my article, I reported that Rep. Conyers said, among many things, that while his committee and the Democrats would hold numerous hearings on Bush’s policies (from the war to corruption and attacks on civil liberties), he regards introducing articles of impeachment as off agenda when Congress returns in January. Conyers urged the people present to help Congress expose the truth about Bush, and said that in order for impeachment to be successful it must have broader public support and bipartisanship in Congress.

In the response, the angry reader appeared to label unabashedly Rep. Conyers as a party "hack," along with other Democrats for trying to "spin and twist" the results of the election, which were based, in the reader’s view, on a popular demand for impeachment. The reader cited one speech by a now retired local Michigan politician (whom he mistook for a Republican loyalist) as evidence for this claim. This attack on Conyers was surprising, needless to say, given the future House Judiciary Committee Chair’s long commitment to the struggle for peace, civil and workers’ rights, and social justice – much longer than Bush’s soon-to-end political career, and certainly longer than just about any of Conyers’ critics.

What the reader’s abusive remarks ignored is that while polls show that voters soundly rebuffed Bush’s war policy and Republican corruption, and are seriously concerned about the administration’s handling of the economy and many social issues, the movement for impeachment has yet to be effectively built. Simple as that.

Building a credible movement for impeachment is the subject of a book edited by Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips called "Impeach the President: The Case against Bush and Cheney." Its contributors move beyond name-calling and targeting of people like Rep. Conyers out of otherwise well-intentioned anger.

"Impeach the President" enlists the pen of the great agitator Howard Zinn, as well as widely published journalists, academics, and activists such as Greg Palast and Mark Crispin Miller. This book documents a range of policy and ideological positions adopted by the Bush administration and the Republican Party that cost lives, destroyed countries and cities, and may have an enduring negative impact on the globe and all human life. From Iraq to New Orleans, ignoring global warming to protecting fossil fuels, and rejecting international law and the U.S. Constitution, the Bush administration and its Republican Party allies in the outgoing Congress are responsible for some of the greatest crimes of the 21st century.

In Iraq, for example, journalist Dahr Jamal exposes a hidden story of that war. Talking to people who witnessed the infamous battle at Fallujah in November 2004, Jamal documents atrocities ordered on that city by U.S. military commanders. He ties the transformation of Iraq into a "free fire zone" to torture and brutality committed in U.S. controlled prisons in Iraq, and to the failure of the occupation forces to rebuild the country after Bush's premature declaration of victory in May 2003.

Greg Palast discusses the infamous Downing Street memo (this website was among the very first U.S.-based publications to reproduce), a secret British government document released to the British press in the spring of 2005. This memo indicates that British officials knew that the Bush administration's reasons for pushing for war with Iraq could not be substantiated. The memo, authored in July 2002, also shows that despite the Bush administration’s public claim to desire a diplomatic resolution to the crisis it had instigated with Iraq, British advisers had reason to believe that the administration intended to go to war regardless as early as the spring 2002. This was months before the massive public relations effort by the Bush administration that threatened the populace with Iraq’s imaginary WMD and the imminence of Iraq’s threat. Indeed, the author of the memo believed that as part of the public relations push the Bush administration had "fixed" intelligence to support their justifications for the war. Related documents extending the war plan timeline even further back to the opening months of 2002 were later leaked to the press.

Palast contrasts the swift impeachment of former President Bill Clinton over lying about his sexual activities with the former Republican-controlled Congress's refusal to even hold a substantive hearing on the Downing Street memo and its implications.

While this book addresses a number of things that could be considered impeachable – lying in order to start a war, ordering military personnel to break international and U.S. law by torturing people, breaking U.S. law to conduct illegal surveillance on people in the U.S. – chapters on "Ignoring Peak Oil," "Propaganda, Lies, and Patriotic Jingoism," and "Bush-Cheney's War on the Enlightenment" are more about ideology and policies. This shift in focus confuses and may even undermine the immediate intention of the book.

Impeachment, of course, is a legalistic approach to addressing the crimes of a federal official like the president or members of his administration. A movement that aims to pressure Congress to impeach Bush should focus on actual impeachable acts that would be considered "high crimes and misdemeanors." By contrast, human rights lawyer Elizabeth De La Vega’s book "United States v. Bush et al" scrutinizes some specific legal issues more directly and lays out an actual indictment that might be presented to a constitutionally mandated entity.

But impeachment is not the real point of the Loo/Phillips book, in my opinion. Impeachment is a limited recourse that, while it is a worthy goal that should be pursued against Bush et al initially by truth-seeking investigations in Congress, it will, if successful, produce little more than censure for its targets. Even further, I suspect that most voters believe they held Bush and the Republicans accountable for bad policies and heinous actions by "firing" congressional Republicans last month.

The real aim of this book is to help generate a more substantial, long-term change. And that is to build a democratic culture willing and capable of holding elected officials and government institutions accountable for their decisions and ensuring that the people have a recourse against those who abuse their power. An effectively used legal remedy to punish criminal acts such as impeachment would have a stronger deterrent effect on future officials from committing similar acts. More specifically, the goal should be to examine and bring to light the true causes, rationale, and motives for war, expansion, military aggression, and, ultimately, empire.

The book sums up a lot of different issues that anger millions of people. But as Howard Zinn notes in his introduction to the book, Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be expected to take the lead to impeach Bush. Indeed, such a notion undermines the basis of a democratic culture of accountability and decisively defeating and splitting the corporate, religious, and political coalition that supports Bush and the Republican Party.

To add my two cents, I believe that the explicit demand to impeach Bush and Cheney is jumping the gun. We can already see that the slogan’s effects are divisive and limited, sparking anger the (sic) of the righteously committed aimed at Democratic members of Congress who feel forced to retreat on "going after Bush," and shifting focus away from the people who committed the crimes.

The impeachment movement should really be a truth movement. It should be something akin to the "truth and reconciliation" process in post-apartheid South Africa during which appropriate punishments were handed down to criminals exposed for heinous crimes against humanity, while preserving the unity of all the people by not allowing the process to be turned into a witch hunt.

With the slogan, "We Need to Know the Truth," a broad people's movement can pressure the new Congress to put on the public record the truth about the Downing Street memo (and similar evidence of misleading the public and Congress into war) and what the Bush people knew and when they knew it. Investigations should scrutinize the role of corporations tied to the White House in keeping the war in Iraq rolling along. Investigations should examine the issue of torture and violations of international and U.S. law, the so-called imperial presidency and the abuse of civil liberties.

Many congressional investigations of these matters have been planned. The truth movement should be closely following these investigations, demanding more, and pushing further for full accountability. But calling allies to the truth movement like Rep. Conyers a "hack" because he won't step out into the wilderness of Congress alone is simply little more than a divisive and empty gesture. To be sure, punishing the Bush cabal for its crimes abroad and at home will require the broadest public support, not just charged rhetoric by principled people.

The most immediate changes that need to be won for working families by the new Congress are raising the minimum wage, reforming the health care farce we call a "system," protecting our voting rights, guaranteeing the right of workers to join unions, taking substantive steps to address environmental catastrophes bearing down on us, and protecting civil rights and liberties. These changes, which will have an immediately meaningful impact on the lives of millions of people, should happen before Congress is ground to a halt with an impeachment struggle.

--Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

>>Wendland writes above: "I believe that the explicit demand to impeach Bush and Cheney is jumping the gun. We can already see that the slogan’s effects are divisive and limited, sparking anger the (sic) of the righteously committed aimed at Democratic members of Congress who feel forced to retreat on "going after Bush," and shifting focus away from the people who committed the crimes."<<

Here I disagree with Wendland. The question of whether or not to impeach is certainly a subject of controversy within the left. But that is not the same thing as his assertion that raising the demand of impeachment is itself causing divisiveness. The disagreement - not divisiveness - is due to the fact that people have different understandings of what needs to be done. To say that people shouldn't raise a slogan that some people don't like and don't agree with because that would be divisive amounts to saying that no one should ever advance a demand that the lowest common denominator doesn't agree with. That would mean that the movement wouldn't be able to really move forward because no advance elements could push it forward by pressing for more than what the LCD already understands.

The larger issue that his comments here and in the last part of his review raise has to do with what people should do who recognize that the Bush/Cheney regime are a terrible threat to the world. The degree of the danger cannot be overstated. They are a huge threat, not only because of what they have done and will do, but even more because they are the cutting edge of an extremist movement that is seeking to restructure the American system and American empire in ways that will make torture and "pre-emptive" wars routine, legal and acceptable.

The people who have been insisting that impeachment must proceed are clearest on just how much of a threat this regime and its funders/apologists and allies represent. That clarity and the righteousness of their anger is something to be celebrated rather than criticized. I don't personally think that Conyers is a hack and wouldn't counsel people to call Conyers that. He has played a very important and brave role on many issues (highly unusual for a national politician, especially in these terrible times) and I suspect that his declarations that impeachment is off the table were not his idea. But demanding that the Democrats as a whole and the political institutions and mass media in general respond to the people's demands for justice is absolutely correct.

An atmosphere must be created in which people like Conyers can feel the "wind at their backs." This gives encouragement and strength to those few legislators who actually would like to do "the right thing" and it puts pressure on those who don't want to do so to go along to try to quiet the popular struggle lest it go further. One of the features of the situation that we face is that the radical right has garnered a tremendous amount of power and influence, not because it represents the interests of most of the American people, but because they have a lot of money, their hands on the levers of institutional power, and they are utterly ruthless (look at what they did to Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson).

This scares some or even many people. But we have to proceed knowing that we are actually in the majority, even if the majority isn't showing this overtly just yet. And we have to proceed on the basis of knowing in our bones and in our heads that we are living in perilous, extremely dangerous times. If we fail to act and we fail to wake others up, if we fail to take on these fascist moves - let's be clear about what's really going on - then the conditions will become increasingly more restrictive and repressive anyway. They had been going in this direction anyway, before 9/11 even, for reasons that I discuss in ITP. If we think that by going on and accomodating their dictatorial and murderous policies we will somehow ameliorate and forestall worse things happening we should consider carefully the lesson of 1930s Germany. Accomodating fascists and torturers is a recipe for disaster.

The people in power and the overall direction of things are much worse than even most activists understand. Our only hope is that we stir people into political life and bring as many people forward as possible. As I and others discuss in ITP - see especially the Preface, Introduction, Chap. 2, 5, 6, 9 and 14 - there have been momentous developments over the past three decades. The system as a whole, not just the GOP, has been moving away from the New Deal and headlong into the neoliberal state. You can't possibly change the direction of this juggernaut without mobilizing people in a very big way from the grassroots and by so doing fundamentally changing the entire political atmosphere. To do so means imagining and practicing politics outside of the safe and narrow arena of electoral politics. As I point out in Chapter Two, elections don't decide public policy. The only really great things we've ever had in this country have been accomplished through mass movements and through sacrifice.

Let's face it, people have to be brave and they have to step forward. As you step forward two things will happen. First, you may get attacked by people who oppose what you're doing. The more progress you make in what you're doing in fact, the more likely that you will be attacked. Second, and even more importantly, other people will be inspired by your stepping forward and begin to move themselves. Consider, for example, what happened when Cindy Sheehan decided to bear witness in Crawford, Texas and stand outside Bush's ranch and insist that he come out and explain why her son had to die for Bush's war on Iraq. Her action sparked a huge response as people gravitated (and continue to gravitate) to her. You can't expect other people to be brave unless you yourself set an example.

You can't take on a vampire by trying to be polite and reasonable. You have to fight it. Pretending that there aren't vampires out to suck your blood doesn't work either. While you're pretending that they're really actually reasonable people they'll come and suck your neck! A very powerful social insurgency that demands not just accountability (a fairly weak phrase to be honest) but demands that punishment for crimes against humanity be carried forward aggressively and that the perpetrators be put on trial is utterly necessary. We dare not shrink from this task because if you think that what you've seen so far is bad, wait and see what these criminals have in store if they are allowed to continue.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Speaking Softly and Carrying a Very Little Stick

Many people have been scratching their heads or even tearing out their hair trying to understand why the Democratic Party has been compliant and complicit in the face of the outrageous dictatorial and fascist moves of the Bush/Cheney regime and of the GOP more generally. Now that the Democrats have been given an unmistakable mandate by the November 2006 elections to get the U.S. out of Iraq and to hold the White House accountable, the Democratic Party leadership nonetheless continues to speak softly and carry a very little stick. And they’ve been using that stick mostly to admonish the people who can’t seem to get it out of their heads that impeachment must proceed forthwith. Many people wonder: how can it be that the White House can be doing such horrible things and even worse, how come they’re STILL getting away with it?! What ails the Democratic Party? What "Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney" does that no other books out there are doing is offer an analysis and an explanation for this confounded conundrum. The short answer to the question (for the long answer you’ve got to read the book) is that this state of affairs of complicity by corporate media and the Democratic Party leadership is exactly what we should expect given the momentous changes that have been underway for the past thirty years in the U.S. and the world. If you are simply puzzled beyond all measure by this state of affairs; if you burn with a desire to see a different situation; you cannot afford to do without this book!