I highly recommend Nadezhda’s post, “Time for a post-9/11 world?.”
Its theme is very similar to one of my own posts from yesterday, “‘Wartime’ President.” Nadezhda notes:
Many of the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 may have made some sense at the time, but they were not well-thought through as long-term policy shifts. Since 9/11, however, the dominating fear of another attack has kept the White House focused on not losing the next skirmish rather than promoting the nation’s long-term interests.
Indeed. It has, perhaps more than any other presidency in our history, defined the nation’s long-term interests exclusively by its own actions and preferences.
I always tell my students in Policy-Making Processes to avoid statements to the effect that a given majority party or its executive has incentives to advance the national interest, because a party–by definition (via Sartori) is a part of the nation. It may, or may not, be acting in the national interest. The problem is in defining what that is the national interest. The very point of democracy is precisely that no one has a monopoly on what that interest is.
A fundamental problem of any institutional form that concentrates power either in one parliamentary party (a la Westminster) or, worse, a fixed-term presidency (as in the US and Latin America), is that it greatly exacerbates the tendency towards current power-wielders’ conflation of their (partisan) interests with those of the nation as a whole. This is a fundamental problem of these models of democracy–all the more so when a president is backed by co-partisan majorities in the legislature on any issues of importance to the chief executive.
So, it is a fundamental problem, transcending any one country or administration. Yet if any previous US administration has been as blunt as the current one in defining its partisan agenda as identical to the nation’s, I can’t think of which one it would be.
In this light, Nadezhda’s entire post is a must-read, but I particularly recommend her quotations from a David Ignatius column entitled the Revolt of the Professionals, in which one key passage is that:
President Bush has bristled at … challenges to his authority over what has amounted to an undeclared national state of emergency.
This really is the crux of the matter. We had a genuine national emergency on 9/11 and many government officials acted outside of legal protocols on that day, most notably the FAA decision to ground all aircraft. Improvisation is necessary in an emergency, because the normal constitutional and statutory provisions can not possibly have anticipated all the procedures that will be necessary when public officials confront an emergency–pretty much by definition. But if a state of emergency becomes “normal,” it is by definition no longer either an emergency or a crisis, and thus the executive must be brought to heal, and operate within institutionalized constraints. If delegation of (possibly new) authority along with proper checks and balances is not enacted to prevent ongoing “state of emergency” governance, then essentially we have given up on the core operating principles of democracy–principles that still remain our best weapon for defeating the broader, and real, threat that we face.