We need less deference to US presidents, not more
Yet as the last eight years have made clear again and again, we need to show less respect to the president…much less. It’s our political class in particular that needs to learn how to be boldly and loudly confrontational whenever the president is behaving outlandishly.
To take but one example of an occasion when confrontation and, yes, bold disrespect was desperately needed for the welfare of the country, and yet totally lacking, there was George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003.
It was a speech that nearly made my blood run cold. Bush strongly hinted at a secret and very ugly covert program to torture, assassinate, or ‘disappear’ terrorist suspects around the globe. The audience in Congress reacted not in shock or horror or disgust. They didn’t revile the President or demand an explanation for what he was bragging about. They didn’t shout “You un-American scum!” No, they just applauded enthusiastically.
All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries.
And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.
For whatever it’s worth, we now know that the great majority of terrorist suspects detained by the US were eventually released without charge – setting aside those who were killed in custody, of course. We still have not learned who these “many others” were or what their “different fate” turned out to be.
In the same speech Bush told his famous lies about Iraq, asserting falsely that Saddam Hussein had continued active nuclear and biological weapons programs in the 12 years since the Gulf War. Bush stated, falsely, that “we know” that Hussein had mobile biological weapons factories. The President repeated the canard, already exposed as nonsense, that aluminum tube imports into Iraq were intended for nuclear weapons centerfuges. Bush even cited a claim disproven by the CIA, based upon a forged document, that Hussein was seeking to import more nuclear material. Bush mischaracterized the UN resolution as an ultimatum to disarm, when in fact Iraq had no such weapons. Bush also described Hussein, falsely, as failing to cooperate with inspectors’ demands to destroy the non-existent weapons. Bush even went on to assert, falsely, that Hussein was sponsoring Al Qaeda. He concluded by announcing that even without UN authorization, he intended to invade Iraq to depose Hussein. No member of Congress had the decency, however, to shout out “You lie”. Instead, this farrago of transparent lies and proud war-mongering was greeted with applause, repeatedly.
Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction.
For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.
Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons: not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities.
Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.
The 108 U.N. inspectors were sent to conduct--were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California. The job of the inspectors is to verify that Iraq's regime is disarming.
It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.
From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.
Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.
The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving.
And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.
Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained.
Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.
We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.
The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraqi's--Iraq's illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.
We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.
In the same speech, by the way, Bush stated that America had a crisis in health care and he was making reform a priority.
Our second goal is high quality, affordable health for all Americans.
The American system of medicine is a model of skill and innovation, with a pace of discovery that is adding good years to our lives. Yet for many people, medical care costs too much, and many have no coverage at all.
These problems will not be solved with a nationalized health care system that dictates coverage and rations care.
Instead, we must work toward a system in which all Americans have a good insurance policy, choose their own doctors, and seniors and low-income Americans receive the help they need.
Instead of bureaucrats and trial lawyers and HMOs, we must put doctors and nurses and patients back in charge of American medicine.
So far so good. But Bush’s proposals, when they finally emerge, do nothing to address bureaucracy, give health care to the poor, improve its quality, or bring costs down. It turns out that he’s advocating nothing more than tort reform for medical malpractice lawsuits, and a Medicare drug plan (for those who already had good medical coverage at low cost).
Instead of applauding deferentially, why didn’t any member of Congress demand to know “Where does that leave the poor and uninsured?”
As a country we’re practically addicted to deference toward our presidents. We even reflexively call him “The Commander in Chief” – as if that presidential role applied to anybody not currently serving in the military. We really need to unlearn those habits of deference that the nation picked up during the Cold War, and recognize anew that presidents gain or lose respect primarily by their actions.
I’m not advocating rudeness for the sake of rudeness, much less the anger and incivility that has coarsened our public discourse during the last generation. I’m certainly not excusing the shameless slanders that Obama’s Republican opponents have made their forte.
But I do think we need to welcome and encourage thoughtful, honest, and frank confrontation of the most powerful and least accountable members of our political class.