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Bernard Weiner: Perversions of Power

Perversions of Power

By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

There are a few things in life that one can count on: death, taxes, and people wanting to rewrite your play. And, for our purposes today, the famous dictum from the noted British historian Lord Acton (1834-1902):

"...Where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. ... Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It doesn't seem to matter whether those power-wielders are liberals or conservatives, Democrats, Republicans or Independents, civilian or military, decent or warped, whatever. There are exceptions, of course, but the tendency certainly is there for power to corrupt, and the reality that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There seems to be something inherent in the holding of power that goes to peoples' heads. The resulting misrule seems especially egregious for those leaders who were installed in power via the electoral process. Somehow, against all expectations, we assume -- we want to assume -- that elected leaders will be more "pure," less likely to abuse the power at their command, will be less prone to corruption, will be more accessible to ordinary citizens.

And then our hopes are dashed when the old crew is defeated and the new bunch turn out almost or just as bad, or sometimes even worse. (The only saving grace is that democratic elections, provided they are honest, do make it somewhat easier to remove bad officials -- at least in theory.)

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Again, we're not surprised when a dictator behaves atrociously -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Amin, Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, et al.; indeed, we'd be surprised if they conducted themselves in any other way. Dictators dictate and go wild with the power they have at their command. Eventually, either their own brutalized populations revolt and overthrow them, or their neighbors or the world community finally decide they've had enough and engineer their downfall. (It usually takes years for this revulsion to build to action; in the meantime, during their reigns of terror, millions have died, economies and institutions are in tatters, and countries' souls have been strangled.)

So where am I going with this? In case you haven't sussed it out, I'll be talking here about CheneyBush, the Democratic Party, and Pervez Musharraf. Lord Acton would have a field day with these guys as negative role models for how not to lead.


Cheney, ever since his days in the Ford Administration, has been consumed with the desire to expand the powers of the presidency -- presumably as long as he's in proximity to the Oval Office. Candidate-Bush appointed Cheney to go find him the best Vice Presidential running-mate; after a nationwide search, Cheney reported back that he found the perfect V.P. for Bush: himself. The rest is (bad) history.

Bush has been quoted at least three times expressing, supposedly in jocular fashion, that dictatorships are much preferable to clunky, messy democracy -- "as long as I get to be the dictator." Ha, ha.

As they've clearly demonstrated, neither Cheney nor Bush has any affinity for the give and take of democracy. Certainly they've evidenced very little patience for the way the country's Founding Fathers, in their genius, doled out pieces of power to the three branches of government so that no one person or faction easily could abuse their limited authority. If the three branches couldn't come to compromise agreements, there would be governmental deadlock for awhile and then the people would have a chance to rectify and alter the situation with their pressure or with their votes in the next election.

That separation-of-power arrangement worked reasonably well for more than 200 years, but Cheney and Rove and Bush much preferred a more authoritarian approach. They put democracy on hold and took matters into their own hands in order to push their domestic and foreign agendas. The Founding Fathers, and today's citizens, never imagined the scenario of "men with the quality of gangsters" in the Executive Branch amassing all control in their hands, and acting ruthlessly to maintain that stranglehhold on power by crushing all opposition.

Short version: They relegated the then-minority opposition party, the Democrats, to non-entity status with the aim of making them irrelevant to government and, with the help of some electoral dirty-tricks and vote-manipulation, creating one-party rule for at least a generation or two. (The result of keeping all power in the hands of the Republicans was that virtually all bribes and lobbying money went to GOP politicians -- which, given the truth of Lord Acton's dictum, resulted in numerous corruption indictments of Republican office-holders a few years later.)

Further, if any bills passed that didn't please CheneyBush 100%, Bush would attach a "signing statement" to the legislation saying he reserved the right to ignore or overturn those parts he didn't agree with. In effect, a permanent veto power outside the traditional way of quashing Congressional legislation It's estimated that Bush has attached close to 1000 such "signing statements" to laws passed by Congress.

Even more outrageous: CheneyBush got their legal counsels (David Addington/Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales) to devise a theory of governance that permitted Bush to violate the Constitution or Congressional laws whenever he claimed he was acting as "commander-in-chief" to protect the "national-security" interests of the American people. In short, under a cockamamie "unitary executive" theory of governance, Bush would be permitted to act as a dictator on all matters foreign and domestic. He warned the courts, which he has packed with his own ideological kinsmen, not to interfere with these prerogatives, and he essentially cut the Legislative Branch out of oversight of his behavior and/or ignored their occasional objections, in effect daring anybody to stop him.

Few felt brave enough to question this misrule at the top, especially on the subjects of the lies used to invade and occupy Iraq, or on torture of suspected terrorists, or on the shredding of the 800-year-old tradition of habeas corpus along with Constitutional protections of the Bill of Rights. (Bush's near-police state included domestic spying without court warrants, rifling through one's computer, black bag jobs, "disappearing" citizens into military jails with no access to lawyers, etc.). With no effective opposition, and with most of the mass-media parrotting the White House spin, CheneyBush have had free reign to rampage through the law and threaten and invade around the globe. Hundreds of thousands have died or been maimed as a result -- American troops and Iraq/Afghanistan civilians -- and a new war is being planned for Iran.


And how has the ostensible "opposition party" responded to the stop-me-if-you-can gauntlet thrown down by CheneyBush and their GOP supporters in Congress? The Democrats barely take on the issues that really matter: the ongoing Iraq war, the impending attack on Iran, the destruction of the Constitution.

In 2006, the American people -- angry and turned off by CheneyBush's extremism, thorough-going incompetence, and corruption on so many levels -- voted the Republicans out of power in Congress and installed a slim but telling Democratic majority. Polls revealed that the voters were fed up with CheneyBush policies, especially with regard to the quagmirish Iraq war and the violation of their privacy rights, and that's why they gave the Democrats a mandate to clean out the stables.

But the timid Dems forgot who put them into power and why, and continued to act as if they were still in the minority by rolling over on their backs whenever CheneyBush started calling them "soft on terrorism" or whatever. In effect, the Democrats have become enablers of the worst policies of the CheneyBush juggernaut, and now have blood on their hands.

The logic of the Dems' easy and constant capitulations is baffling. Bush is now the most loathed president in modern history, even lower in approval ratings than Richard Nixon at his lowest, a mere 24%, and Cheney is even lower at 11% approval. The public is more than two-thirds opposed to CheneyBush's Iraq War and Occupation and feel the U.S., in general, is headed "in the wrong direction." And yet the Democrats behave as if they have to snap to it whenever the Administration looks at them the wrong way.

Perhaps the best symbol of that timidity is their refusing to even consider impeachment of Cheney and Bush for a long list of high crimes and misdemeanors. Because of their wimpy behavior, on impeachment and Iraq, the Democrats in Congress are held in even less repute than CheneyBush.

Indeed, elements of the Democratic activist base, the ones who worked so hard to get them into the majority in 2006, are threatening to abandon the party and are denouncing Dem leaders and many of the announced presidential candidates for the 2008 race. Many Dems are no longer sending donations to the Party coffers, and instead are restricting their giving to specific candidates who demonstrate moral strength and independence in their policy choices.

In short, as Lord Acton would have known would happen, the ascension to C ongressional majority status power has tended to corrupt the Democrats, and there is great suspicion that if they were given absolute power they would be only a little different from the morally-bankrupt CheneyBush Administration, with more wars of choice abroad and more willingness to misuse the expanded powers of the presidency against their perceived political enemies.


The situation in Pakistan is uber-serious. If a centrist/secular Pakisan government were to fall and militant Islamists got their hands on that country's nuclear missiles, there is no telling what kind of conflagration might occur in the Greater Middle East, or beyond.

But certain lessons can be drawn from the situation there. And, lo and behold, Condi Rice and George W. Bush delivered some of them, calling for Musharaff (nudge nudge, wink wink) to return to democratic institutions, guarantee an honest voting process, support a free-wheeling investigatory press, respect an independent judiciary and oppositional elements, etc.

Trouble is, the CheneyBush vision of what's wrong is sharp when it refers to Pakistan but they seem incapable of seeing the mote in their own eyes. You can't pretend to be an admirable democratic country when you violate your Constitution and deny citizens their rights, and you can't denounce torture and mistreatment of protesters and prisoners when you sanction such in your own behavior, and you can't decry a political leader also being the head of the military when your country operates that way, too. The American double-standard reeks.

(Catch this quote from White House Press Secretary Dana Perino when asked about the situation in Pakistan. Question: "It is ever reasonable to restrict constitutional freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism?" Her unequivocal answer: "In our opinion, No." Oh, but I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.)


In a way, what's happening in Pakistan, with Musharraf proclaiming martial law and arresting his political enemies, is reminiscent of the era of Cold War politics. The U.S. supported with gobs of money and military aid any country that professed "anti-communism"; this policy meant that the U.S. lost popular international support around the globe because we were backing the worst sort of dictators who represssed their peoples (Marcos in the Phillipines, the Shah of Iran, the apartheid regime in South Africa, etc. etc.). And here we are again: If you claim you're anti-"terrorist," American will supply you with billions in cash, police "training," and loads of high-tech weaponry.

Musharraf, who assumed office in a military coup, always has been in a delicate position with his own people. He has to mollify the U.S., his major benefactor, while not losing the support of his more nationalist, Islamic population. Eventually, of course, by being so tightly allied to Bush, he antagonized the nationalists and the Islamist extremists, the latter of whom began suicide bombing in Karachi, Islamabad and beyond. By stomping on his political opposition, Musharraf, who continued to head the military while serving as president, nearly-destroyed the moderate middle of the political spectrum. Now what does he do?

(If he loses the election he promises to hold in January or February, and militant Islamists were to move into power, would the U.S. honor the democratic will of the Pakistani citizenry? Or, as happened in the Palestinian territories, would the U.S. denounce the result of the election and refuse to deal with the popularly-elected victors? For CheneyBush, democracy is a bitch when the "wrong" people get elected.)

CheneyBush have few decent choices with regard to Pakistan. They could cut Musharraf loose and support Bhutto, but she has yet to demonstrate that she can command the allegiance of the people, that she can govern from the middle, that she would be any more welcome by fundamentalists in her country. How to arrange all this without greasing the tracks for the militant Islamists to ride into power -- that's the trick.

A talented diplomatic magician is needed to help arrange this trick, and the U.S. should be in the thick of it. But Bush, Cheney and Rice (fixated as they are on the catastrophe they've unleashed in Iraq and now on how and when to attack Iran) have demonstrated time and time again over the past seven years that they are not skilled at the kind of nuanced diplomatic negotiations that are required.

My guess is that we'd better prepare ourselves for what's about to hit the giant fan in South Asia. Break out the umbrellas. #


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D, in government & international relations, has taught at universities in Washington State and California, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). For comment: crisispapers@comcast.net

First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 11/13/07.

Copyright 2007 by Bernard Weiner.

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