Sunday, April 09, 2006

Drang nach Persien

Commencing an avoidable war with Iran would, in my opinion, seal the Hitler-Bush comparison beyond any reasonable objection.

From our present perspective the Holocaust may be the Nazis' number one crime, but during the war and for ten to fifteen years after, most of the world saw aggressive war as the greatest evil Hitler inflicted on the world. Various analyses of Nazism, e.g., by Sebastian Haffner, have called attention to its inherently dynamic and expansionary nature, i.e., that it was not so much a political philosophy as a movement that fed upon itself and became its own end. Nazism did not exist to pursue a stated program for Germany, that once accomplished would result in its peace and prosperity; rather, one Nazi success simply suggested the necessity of another, and another, indefinitely, in order to keep monopolizing the nation's attention and resources and, not incidentally, to keep the citizens persuaded that they could not afford to dispense with Hitler's leadership. Hitler explicitly stated that his rationale for European war was to commit Germany to a stark choice between conquest and destruction. He believed that once Germans understood that they had crossed the Rubicon, that they were too hated to be able to risk defeat, they would do whatever was necessary to conquer.

It is not necessary that Bush formally repudiate the Bill of Rights or set up concentration camps to be like Hitler (although he has done things close to both of those). It is only necessary that he continue the illegal and immoral policy of unnecessary, aggressive, allegedly preventive war, waged at his discretion in the name of national security: the policy to which we owe our present predicament in Iraq.

Should this happen--and there are increasingly ominous signs that it may--American citizens will have to face the fact that this administration has proved beyond doubt that it possesses at least one critical characteristic of fascism. That in turn, it seems to me, would necessarily pose the question: what is a citizen's duty in such a circumstance?

I question whether traditional political opposition suffices. Constitutional politics means certain parameters within which all parties agree to seek to achieve their aims. This cannot be understood merely formally; if that were true, then the Nazis would have been in the right because their actions were duly authorized by law. There is an unspoken covenant in our Constitution, as in others, that government will use its powers in accord with a core of values composed in part of national identity and in part of traditional morality. There are some things government cannot do, however legal it may first make them, without violating that covenant. Violation of that covenant is tantamount to repudiation of the constitution. And that raises the possibility that a citizen is no longer restricted to constitutional, or legal, action in opposing government.

The principle is especially important in the war powers area. The Constitution quite unambiguously vests in Congress the power to declare war. Yet, very early in our history, all branches of government recognized that the executive, by virtue of its role as commander-in-chief, possessed inherent powers to deploy forces on an emergency basis. This originally meant a purely defensive reaction, limited in time and scope to the emergency. This has, over the decades, silently mutated into the present "doctrine" that the executive may proactively engage in major foreign expeditions without a declaration of war and without any meaningful legal limits in terms of time and scope. The cards the executive holds in this area are now so high that politically blackmailing the legislature into vague general-terms consent has become almost trivial--for the president has the power to take steps that amount to crossing the Rubicon. The president has the power to emulate Hitler in committing the nation to a course it cannot abandon without excessive danger. For all practical purposes, we now have executive war, pure and simple, just as Germany did in 1939. Our president is legally and politically able to wage undeclared aggressive war in our names. I submit that this poses a radical danger to the covenant underlying our Constitution that the powers of government will not be used outside the parameters of a traditionally non-aggressive self-governing republic that promotes the rule of law.

The tradition of civil disobedience is founded on the principle that government's legal action may justify resistance. From the abolitionists and suffragettes through resistance to fascism to Gandhi and Martin Luther King and on to Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the idea that citizens can and should resist tyranny and oppression sponsored by their own governments has been solidly established as part of the modern consciousness. There is no way to repudiate it without declaring some of the most paradigmatic individuals and movements of the age outlaws. We obviously are not going to do that; we hold them up to our schoolchildren as examples of principled courage.

Civil disobedience is by definition illegal. It should never be undertaken lightly. But it presents this paradox: that when it is justified it is also imperative. It is justified only when government has departed so far from its implied covenant with the people as to create a moral and civic crisis. But when such a crisis exists, a citizen may not turn his back on it without, in effect, withdrawing in that measure from the community. Even worse: because passivity is enabling, the citizen who is able, mentally and physically, to resist injustice may actually be supporting it by attempting to remain neutral.

Thus, a Bush attack on Iran, which would certainly deepen and widen our military commitment to imposing an American order on the Middle East, poses a question for the citizen that even the invasion of Iraq did not. Citizens could, before March 20, 2003, ethically rely on their government's representations that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and sponsored anti-American terrorism, making him an at least colorable threat to an America recently traumatized by the September 11 attacks. Given everything that has transpired since that date, such an ethical refuge is now unavailable. Virtually nothing we were told before the invasion of Iraq, from weapons of mass destruction to Iraqis throwing rosebuds, proved to be true. A citizen must now demand proof from his government that the next war it proposes is not aggressive war. A citizen who does not do this is, in effect, shrugging over the possibility that his government is following the Hitlerian pattern.

And if a citizen may not ethically do that, then what must be the responsibilities of an elected member of Congress? A Congress that has sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States?
A Congress that, under the plain language of the Constitution, holds the power to declare war? A Congress already covered with shame and opprobrium for its spineless acquiescence in Bush's rush to invade Iraq?

I submit that a Bush attack on Iran would be a Rubicon not only in a foreign policy sense but also in a domestic one: it would be the point at which patriotic Americans who believe that the Constitution's promise of self-government is worth defending would be ethically required to refuse all cooperation to an administration violating the implied covenant of the Constitution. Bush, in attacking Iran, might be acting in our names in form, but not in substance. In substance, he would be pursuing a private vision inspired by messianic religion and radical political ideology, not a consensus of the American people. There comes a point at which form and substance can diverge no further without creating a degree of intellectual dishonesty that makes ethical action impossible. At that point, the ethical citizen resists.

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