Corporeality IX: Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency
Tomorrow, President’s Day, is on Monday, the 15th of February this year. George Washington’s birthday is on the 22nd of February. In fact, the holiday, for almost fifty years has been celebrated on the third Thursday of February to accommodate a public enamored with long weekends and retail outlets in love with scheduling great sales on such days. This year, President’s Day falls only two days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 13th of February. Anticipating such a fluctuation when the holiday was set for the third Monday in February, the day was renamed President’s Day from Washington’s birthday to celebrate both presidents. In reality, the day is now widely understood as celebrating the Office of the President and all its occupants rather than just one or two presidents.
President’s Day is now more akin to Victoria Day except that, in Canada, the day that used to be celebrated just as Queen Victoria’s birthday is now celebrated as the birthday of the current monarch as well, even though Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday falls on 21 April. The shift of one celebration to honouring the Office (U.S.) to the practice in Canada of celebrating the current monarch is telling. In Canada, the monarch is supposed to be a symbol of unity, but has become the symbol of Canada’s political fault line. The day that was once known in Quebec as Fête de la Reine became unofficially Fête de Dollard after the Quiet Revolution in the sixties and in 2003 officially became National Patriot’s Day. Our focus, however, is the United States presidency and the Canadian example will be used only as a foil.
So it is appropriate at this time to write about the nature of the office of the U.S. President and its current occupant. It is not as if all the occupants are worthy of celebration. I cite just one example, George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor in that high office. He ranks among the worst presidents in American history. Hence, the understanding is that President’s Day honours the high office much more than all its occupants. In contrast, there are no celebrations of the birthdays of any Prime Minister of Canada or the office. One of the essential features of the American presidential office, as distinct from the Canadian Prime Minister’s office, is that the person who is president is both the political leader of the U.S.A. as well as Commander-in-Chief of the American armed forces. Two positions are embodied in one person. In America, we find the dilemma of the elected king’s two opposite functions. The issue in the U.S. throughout its history has been whether those two powers are separable or inseparable in the one person, and, if separable, which part rules the other. If it is the civilian part, how is control over the military role exercised or, surprisingly since unanticipated, a coup of the military by civilians prevented?
The George W. Bush presidency can correctly be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the indivisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the infallibility of the actions performed by that office when it comes to military matters when indivisibility becomes the order of the day. The President can do no wrong. Ironically, this doctrine was enunciated at a time when George W. Bush delegated all his Commander-in-Chief responsibilities to a small coterie of officials around him. He never engaged in any substantive discussions of military policy himself. Robert Blackwill, for example, who was the coordinator for strategic planning for Iraq in the National Security Council in 2004, was never asked anything about Iraq even as he traveled with Bush daily in the 2004 elections. The exclusive focus was re-election. Further, as everyone who has written on the subject acknowledges, advisory meetings of top officials were exercises in silent hostility – whether between Richard Armitage and Doug Feith or Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. There were presentations but no substantive exchanges or discussions about policy decisions, thereby allowing Dick Cheney to determine policy by his control of the President. Condoleezza Rice tried but failed to facilitate such debates. George W. Bush was a Commander-in-Chief, but without the dignity such an office should have as he dithered and shook his legs up and down under the table in recognition that he was involved in discussions over and above his mental capacities.
Dick Cheney is usually viewed as the Rasputin influencing, exercising and, most importantly, defending that doctrine of presidential power. Not for George W. Bush, but for himself. George W. Bush is often, and, I believe, correctly seen as Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy for Dick Cheney, Bush’s Edgar Bergen when it comes to foreign affairs. After all, George W. Bush consulted with only two officials before deciding o go to war in Iraq. Neither Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld were military officers, but policy advisers determined to use the military for their own political purposes. This was a case of the civilians seizing absolute control of the military for strictly political purposes.
David Graham in an article in The Atlantic (5 November 2015) reinforces this interpretation based on his interview with former President George H.W. Bush in anticipation of the latter’s forthcoming biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The elder 91-year-old former President, George H.W. Bush, criticized the dominating Dick Cheney and the arrogant Ronald Rumsfeld for entrapping his son in initiating a foolish war for their own nefarious purposes. He referred to Cheney as, “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East,” to advance their own imperial agenda.
Cheney’s belief in the untrammelled power of the Commander-in-Chief went back to his days as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence. In the 1990 lead-up to the first Gulf War, President Bush overruled Cheney’s advice that the administration should go to war without Senate approval, not because the approval was in doubt, but because Cheney was committed to the doctrine of the indivisible and absolute power in matters of war of the Commander-in-Chief. Bush père criticized his son for being a patsy in the hands of those two manipulators. Over time, but too late, Bush-son became disenchanted, first with Rumsfeld and then even with Cheney. After the Republicans were whipped badly in the 2006 elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld. He also gradually became sceptical of the advice he was receiving from his Rasputin.
The exercise of supreme and unchallenged authority, ostensibly by the President, but, in reality, by Cheney, extended into legal matters as well as military ones. The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (the JAGs) operates a court system dealing with civil litigation, tort claims, labour law, the application of just war principles and international law, but Cheney was primarily concerned with suborning the Judge Advocates, the licensed attorneys representing military service personnel. The dictates of civilian lawyers in the Defense Department, who are political appointees more than individuals with high standards of professionalism, were to determine what JAGs could or could not do. This was another area in which there was an effort to make the rulings of the Commander-in-Chief unaccountable to the rule of law. But the most heinous example was the rules for interrogating captured alleged terrorists and not permitting them to have independent counsel.
Obama’s presidency can be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the divisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the fallibility of the actions performed by that office.
The American Constitution insists that the highest military authority belongs to the highest civilian authority; the President is the First Admiral, the First Chief-of-Staff and Commander of the Air Force. David Luban called this “fused dominion” characteristic not only of the American presidential system, but of warlords and military dictators, ancient hero-rulers and feudal Western kings. In the fusion, could the Commander-in-Chief suborn the civilian head of state or would the civilian head of state ensure that the military remained subordinate to civilian rule as the writers of the Constitution intended? If he did the latter, could he interpret that principle of domestic rule over the military from a supervisory role and ensuring military actions were governed by civilian-set goals? Or could and would he, in effect, engage in a military coup, not of the military over civilian office, but of civilians over military professionals by seizing absolute control over the military unaccountable to any other political institution?
In Jay Bybee’s torture memo, under the George W. Bush administration, the indivisibility of the office is cited to justify the presidential exercise of untrammeled power in the area of security matters. “The Framers understood the Clause as investing the President with the fullest range of power understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution as belonging to the military commander.” What I call the indivisibility of the highest office, David Luvan calls the interpretation, as forged by the Bush administration, the consolidationist theory as distinct from separationist doctrine. The consolidationist view is summarized in the briefing of the Justice Department Lawyer to Congress, “The President Is Always Right,” what I call the indivisibility doctrine is upheld. In this interpretation of Article 2 of the Constitution, in the global war on terror, Congress cannot second guess the President. The President is entitled to use any form of interrogation for enemy combatants deemed appropriate without Congressional oversight.
So Abu Ghraib is not just about the rights of enemy combatants in captivity; the issue goes to the very heart of the meaning of the American Constitution. In the consolidationist view, courts that generally oversee the protection of such rights must also defer to the Presidency because courts lack the requisite competence of the Commander-in-Chief and cannot and should not tie the hands of the President, even by applying a criterion forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” More expansively, that doctrine invades limitations on the courts even in domestic matters, for the doctrine includes an absence of geographical limits to its application since global terrorists can be found within America itself. (Cf. Padilla v. Bush) In this interpretation of the battlefield, the military, not the judiciary, determine the status of the individual as an enemy combatant. In other words, using the indivisibility principle, qua Commander-in-Chief, the powers of the President in military matters were unlimited.
Barack Obama, a former Professor of Constitutional Law, opposed the indivisibility principle for interpreting the powers of the President. Though both powers were consolidated in a single person, the doctrine of separation of powers still applied and the responsibilities of a President as the highest civilian authority in the land entailed that civilian responsibilities, and responsibilities to the democratic polity, overrode any of his military responsibilities. Though I certainly support Obama’s interpretation, it is not as a legal scholar, but as a philosopher. However, my interest here is not even defending the divisibility and separation of powers doctrine, as much as indicating that this is an issue in contention in the United States because historically the Americans copied British developments at the time where the king was both head of government and Commander-in-Chief. It would trap Obama in a paradox from which he could not escape. (Read tomorrow’s blog.) In Canada, where the system was forged a hundred years later, the divisibility of military and civilian power became the dominant conception without any equivocation.
No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers” conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Why in the U.S. does Barack Obama personally decide who will be the target of drone assassinations? Is this an exercise in machismo? If it were, then Obama would be directly undercutting his belief in the divisibility of powers and the subordination of military to civilian authority in the Office of the President. From my review of the literature, I am convinced that Obama does it, not to usurp the skills and prowess of the military in selecting targets, but because of the danger of the military exceeding their areas of competence and using their resources to eliminate political leaders with serious political consequences internationally. The separation of military and civilian decisions even extends to the battlefield and the requisite just war norm that civilians are not to be targeted intentionally and only may be unintentionally killed in proportion to the importance of the military target. However, as another unintended consequence, such a premise relies on making the CIA another branch of the military.
When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one body, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes President cannot avoid becoming an imperial President to some degree.
With the Help of Alex Zisman