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America's choice: imperial vs constitutional rule

About the author
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at

The increasingly adversarial relationship between President Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress represents either the resurgence of the traditional United States system of checks and balances or the increased polarisation of American politics. Viewed as an indicator of the state of US democracy, the debate over Iraq policy is a positive sign, evidence that the normal - albeit labyrinthine - US political process has returned.

Many political observers have written off the Bush presidency as disastrously incompetent. Outside the White House, there is near universal agreement that the invasion of Iraq was the worst US foreign-policy blunder in recent memory. Meanwhile, most of Bush's other decisions - such as insisting on tax cuts while embarking on a lengthy "war on terror" - are similarly scorned.

Bob Burnett is a writer based in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at

Also by Bob Burnett in openDemocracy:

"A liberal foreign policy for the US: ten maxims" (27 February 2007)

Nonetheless, political observers note that the Bush era marks the zenith of the neo-conservative notion of the "imperial presidency": the idea that because America is at war, the three branches of the federal government are not co-equal; the executive branch takes on extraordinary powers and presidential actions are not subject to review by Congress or the judiciary. On 1 May 2007, when President Bush vetoed appropriations for Iraq, he said: "This legislation is unconstitutional because it purports to direct the conduct of the operations of the war in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the Presidency by the Constitution, including as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces."

A president's mission

Bush's design for an imperial presidency surfaced after 9/11, aided by four events:

  • traumatised Americans required reassurance that their president would protect them
  • the White House message machine, directed by the Machiavellian Karl Rove, played on this fear and convinced Americans that only Bush, as commander-in-chief, could save them from further attacks
  • Congress acquiesced to the administration's plans
  • noting Bush's popularity, the American press gave the White House a free ride.
Only after it became painfully obvious that Bush erred in declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq, did his imperial presidency come under attack. Yet, the initial criticism didn't penetrate the consciousness of American voters: Bush's image as a stalwart commander-in-chief persisted and he prevailed in the 2004 presidential election. The president maintained his aura of invincibility until hurricane Katrina revealed him as an ineffective executive, the occupation of Iraq produced civil war, and numerous Washington Republicans were implicated in scandals.

Among openDemocracy’s recent articles on United States politics and foreign policy:

Ruth Rosen, " America's election: Daddy’s swagger vs Mommy’s care "
(14 November 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, " The US in Iraq: stay the course, pay the price " (12 January 2007)

Michael Lind, " What next? US foreign policy after Bush"
(12 February 2007) - with responses from Mary Kaldor, Richard Falk, Sankaran Krishna, Mark Kingwell, Mark Luccarelli and David Rieff, and a reply by Lind

Sidney Blumenthal, " The Republican subversion of law " (20 March 2007)

Godfrey Hodgson, " Democracy in America: the money trap "
(27 March 2007)

Sidney Blumenthal, " The Republicans’ grand experiment "
(18 April 2007)

Ian Shapiro, " After occupation: a containment strategy for Iraq " (25 April 2007)

Bush's handling of Katrina showed him to be so callous and inept that it shocked Americans into a reassessment of his leadership: for the first time, the president's negative approval rating exceeded the positive and pollsters found that a majority of respondents no longer trusted him. Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq deteriorated and Americans became increasingly cynical about Bush's optimism. Then, the long-delayed 9-11 Commission report criticised the actions of the Bush administration, noting that it had failed to take obvious steps to protect the US. Suddenly, authoritative insiders published an avalanche of books criticising the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the handling of the occupation.

Meanwhile, the 109th Congress - serving between January 2005 and January 2007 - proved to be one of the most ineffective and corrupt in American history. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives met an average of two and a half days per week, six hours per day; serving primarily as a rubber-stamp for White House initiatives. In the November 2006 mid-term elections, a fatal mixture of hubris, greed, and incompetence brought down the 109th Congress. The speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, and the Republican majority leader, Bill Frist, had proved ineffective leaders and many of Hastert's key lieutenants had become embroiled in scandals. As a result, Democrats won back the House of Representatives and eked out a surprise victory in the Senate. For the first time, the Bush administration faced a Democratically-controlled Congress.

The 110th Congress is investigating three aspects of the imperial presidency: the conduct of the war in Iraq; the tactics used in the "war on terror"; and Bush's abuse of patronage. Congressional Democrats seek to limit Bush's power as commander-in-chief through restricting funds for the occupation, circumscribing presidential authority to launch attacks on other supposed terrorist states, such as Iran, and investigating mismanagement of the war. They've launched investigations into all aspects of the Iraq war: charges that the Bush White House manipulated pre-war intelligence to fool Congress into voting for an invasion, allegations that the first days of the occupation were bungled because the Coalition Provisional Authority was overloaded with inexperienced political appointees, and assertions that the occupation failed because of widespread graft and incompetence.

A system's choice

Bush's "war on terror" includes a multifaceted attack on the civil liberties of suspected terrorists. Congressional Democrats are investigating the administration's domestic eavesdropping programme as well as it's handling of "prisoners of war" in the notorious Guantànamo Bay facility and other prisons scattered throughout the world. At issue is provision of the right of habeas corpus as well as other procedural guarantees the first world takes for granted.

Finally, the conduct of the Iraq war and the revelations about partisan decisions in the department of justice have made evident that when it comes to Bush's political appointments, loyalty trumps competence. It's clear that the president, and his political advisor, Karl Rove, see the power of the White House as a means to maximise Republican political power. Congressional Democrats are investigating this abuse.

Four months is not enough time to determine whether the shift in Congress signals a return to the historic US pattern of a balance of power among the three branches of federal government. However, early indications are positive: the 110th Congress has been much more active than its predecessor; meeting an average of four and a half days a week, eight hours per day; and launching more than twice as many oversight hearings. It now seems inevitable that Bush's expansion of presidential authority will be challenged in the courts. It remains to be seen if an increasingly conservative Supreme Court will back the imperial presidency or the historic US system of checks and balances.

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