The Bush administration has been clear in maintaining that the war on terrorism gives Bush, in their view, carte blanche to do whatever he deems necessary, regardless of the Constitution, our rule of law, or the Geneva Conventions, an international agreement governing the treatment of prisoners. In so doing, Bush has behaved more as a king than a president, exploiting Americans’ fears of another terrorist attack and ridiculing detractors as unpatriotic sissies who just do not understand the harsh realities of war.
For a very long time, it appeared that Bush would be able to do just as he pleased, continuing to exercise “executive privilege” at will, continuing to roll out the same tired lie that the war in Iraq is linked to the 9/11 attacks, continuing to frame the battle as “us against them” — if you’re not one of us, then you must be one of them, as a means of discouraging dissent by marginalizing dissenters as uninformed, bleeding heart liberal kooks.
This campaign, I am sad to say, has been amazingly effective. Democrats have been somewhat reluctant to attack — at least as long as Bush’s approval rating numbers remained decent — since most of them voted in support of the war to begin with, and none of them is anxious to be characterized as “weak on terror” in attack ads come election time. Under such circumstances, taking Bush to task for his disastrous policies, holding him accountable for his horrible decisions, would simply be too risky politically.
But who, in their wildest dreams, would have guessed that the dissent would come, at last, from the United States Supreme Court, which no one in their right mind could accuse of being too liberal in its current make-up? Earlier in the summer, it was the Supreme Court that dealt Bush his first severe reprimand for the administration’s strategy of trying prisoners in military tribunals. Bush had argued that the Geneva Conven-tions did not apply to these prisoners because they were not “prisoners of war,” but the Court did not buy the argument. In a 5-3 decision, the Court ruled that Bush had overstepped his bounds, and that the trials would be illegal without congressional approval.
Which brings us to last week, when an even more astonishing turn of events unfolded. Bush has been seeking approval on a bill that would not only allow the tribunals to take place, but allow more “extreme” methods of interrogating the prisoners. A Republican-controlled Senate Committee rebuked the plan and offered up an alternative affording the prisoners basic protections of due process under the law. Among those Republicans rejecting Bush’s proposal were John McCain, John Warner, Lindsay Graham, and Susan Collins. McCain, a former prisoner of war with more knowledge and moral authority on the subject than Bush could ever dream of, bristled at White House spokesman Tony Snow’s attempt to spin the administration’s position as “clarifying” the Geneva Conventions.
“Clarify, modify — I mean please,” McCain said. “You are changing a treaty which no other nation on Earth has changed for the first time in 57 years.”
More resounding yet was the letter McCain released to the press later in the day, from Bush’s former Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” Powell wrote. He added that Bush’s proposal would “put our troops at risk.”
Perhaps Bush can convince enough Americans that the Supreme Court is controlled by bleeding heart liberal kooks to dampen the political fallout of that decision. After all, many people still believe in a connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, all evidence to the contrary. But how will Bush be able to convince people that John McCain and Colin Powell are bleeding heart liberal kooks? Who’s going to buy that one?
Implicit in Bush’s strategy from the beginning was that if you do not agree with him, you are not a good American, not a true patriot, not a serious enemy of terrorism. That argument resonates fine when the target is the op-ed page of The New York Times, but what if the target is John McCain? Or Colin Powell?
King George’s reign appears to be over at last. Too bad we can’t say the same of his presidency.