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Steve Weissman: Whose Coup in America?

Whose Coup in America?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 15 July 2004

A coup d'etat in the United States? What sane person would believe it? No one in their right mind could honestly think that President George W. Bush would use the officially predicted terrorist attack on American soil in the next few months as a pretext to put off November's election. Yet many otherwise sensible Americans seem convinced he will.

I think they are wrong, and are aiming at the wrong target. But I have to admit that their circumstantial evidence exposes much that is rotten in both the Bush Administration and what we are taught to think of as American Democracy.

Start with the ham-fisted way Tom Ridge, chief of Homeland Security, took center stage last week to predict that Osama bin Laden would soon "disrupt our democratic process." Mr. Ridge openly admitted that neither he nor any of our intelligence services knew when, where, or how the evil Saudi might strike. They only knew he would.

Secretary Ridge offered his airy prognosis just as the Democrats were gaining in the polls from Senator Kerry's choice of John Edwards as his running mate. No doubt, the Bush Administration's timing - and the presence of Vice President Cheney - were purely coincidental.

The other shoe fell when Homeland Security officials clumsily revealed a disturbing secret: they were considering what legal steps they would need to postpone the presidential election should the predicted attack take place. The story began to emerge last Thursday at a press briefing by figures identified in the official transcript only as "Senior Intelligence Officials."

Question: Would you postpone voting?

Senior Intelligence Official: That's a speculative question that I'm not prepared to answer, frankly. There are all kinds of issues here we have to deal with. It's premature for anyone here at the Department to give information on this topic.

By Sunday, Reuters and Newsweek reported that officials were indeed "mulling" how they might postpone the elections. On Monday, National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice gave the story new life by denying that the White House was even considering such an alternative.

An item from afar heightened the distrust. In Pakistan, security officials revealed that the Bush Administration was blatantly pushing Gen. Mushareff's government "to deliver" bin Laden or other HVTs - High Value Targets - "before the [upcoming] U.S. elections." As brilliantly reported last week by the often pro-Bush New Republic, a White House official explicitly told the Pakistani intelligence chief that the best date for good news would be the last ten days of July, just before or during the Democratic National Convention.

"It would be best," said the Bush aide, "if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July."

Am I outraged over the administration's effort to create a July Surprise? No, not really. The only outrage is how few of us will even blink. After all their lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction, Saddam and Osama, and acceptable torture, who could be surprised that Team Bush was trying to orchestrate a major kill or capture to drown out the Democratic Convention?

Would they, then, use a terrorist attack to put off the elections if Mr. Bush felt he might lose the election? I have no doubt they would, but only if they thought they could get away with it. And, given how quickly Democratic Party leaders and much of the media shot down their trial balloons, they know they cannot. At least not yet.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar faced a similar situation in Spain last March, when terrorists bombed four commuter trains three days before the national election. According to rumors sweeping Spain at the time, he prepared to declare a national emergency and postpone the election until autumn, but backed down when King Juan Carlos refused to sign the necessary decrees.

To this day, no one has proved the rumors true, while Aznar's party called them "a colossal lie." In any case, the elections went ahead as scheduled, and Aznar's party lost to the anti-war Socialists.

Still, the rumor has a lesson to teach. Once Congress or the Constitution gives the president the power to postpone elections, or go to war, or do almost anything else, we have no independent head of state to stay his hand. Only the Supreme Court could stop him, if they would. Not a promising prospect after the last presidential selection.

Spurred by two world wars, a cold war, a globalizing economy, and a weak-kneed Congress, the American presidency has increasingly become more an elected monarchy than the co-equal branch of government our founders intended. Who needs a coup if the elected monarch can do as he will?

Still, Mr. Bush's legacy may well be to show us exactly how scary even a time-bound monarch can become. An online magazine with excellent sources in the Republican Party, but an unsavory reputation among journalists, has painted the president as going seriously wacky. Like many others, I dismissed the account as unsubstantiated rumors, which I hope they are. But what if the rumors were true? In our elected monarchy, who can stop a crazy king? Who can stop a sane king who fails to grasp reality?

Perhaps the time has come for voters to stand up against unchecked power, and for Congress to take back the right to declare war, make peace, schedule elections, and do all the other things that the Constitution intended it to do.

Forget imagined coups, and take back the power that Mr. Bush has wrested away from an all-too-compliant Congress and from terrified voters who wrongly thought he would make them safe.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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