Saturday, June 26, 2004

Principalities and Powers

I admit that Bush exercises a certain fascination, rather like something alarming and mysterious you find sticking to the bottom of your shoe; and, certainly, the American system gives him staggering official power and very real actual power. Political combinations aside, he still commands the loyalty of the dull normals, an enormous voting block. All that said—and these are not insignificant considerations—Bush just isn’t the problem. Evicting him from office may be an indispensable step towards restoring a decent state of affairs, but it is not a sufficient step and it makes a very great difference how he is removed and by whom. That’s why I have very mixed feelings about recent evidence that the CIA is working to unseat Bush.

One can hardly blame the professional spooks for despising an administration that has used them so badly and in so many ways. But it goes beyond making Tenet the in-house fall guy for every disaster or even the cynical and, indeed, criminal outing of Valerie Plane, now in the late cover-up stage. The CIA, in common with many other career defense and intelligence people like Richard Clarke, see the Bush doctrine as potentially fatal to their own much subtler approach to dominating the world. Almost everybody’s an imperialist at this point. The issue is whether the empire should be managed with a certain amount of tact and an awareness of the very real limits of American power or whether we can afford to rub the world’s nose in our endlessly advertised righteousness.

There are plenty of signs that CIA people are busy undermining the administration. Retired intelligence people have been furiously criticizing our unilateral foreign policy, and an active CIA man, writing as Anonymous, will shortly publish a ferocious attack on Bush that predicts that Bin Laden will make a point of undertaking a showy terrorist attack in the United States before the election in order to get his favorite candidate a second term—nothing could have furthered the cause of Islamic radicalism so much as the invasion of Iraq. The appearance of Imperial Hubris is especially significant since active intelligent agents have to get company permission before publishing. It would have been very easy for the CIA to have delayed the book beyond the election if they wished. They didn’t.

We do not know what other actions CIA people are undertaking. They are, after all, accustomed to operating clandestinely. In the first three years of the administration, very little embarrassing paper surfaced about the Bush administration. I suspect the increasing appearance of secret documents and memos over the last six months or so owes something to the activities of disgruntled insiders. Bush is not quite the Lone Ranger in his own administration, but he is having some serious What-You-Mean-We-White-Man moments. Of course the CIA is not the only power group with an ax to grind. I’m sure that plenty of generals would like to get even with Rumsfeld for his highhandedness and micromanagement. The administration should keep an eye on those folks—high-ranking officers are far more intelligent and vastly better trained than the average political hack—and the heads of the various commands are used to exercising independent power.

Military and intelligence groups have long exercised extra-constitutional power in the United States. Democratic presidents, in particular, haven’t been able to rely on the loyalty of the cops, spies, and generals for a very long time; and if some renegade admiral torpedoes a Republican at some point, I guess turn about is fair play. The net effect of the process, however, is to continue the erosion of responsible government in the country. Most of the time, I believe liberal empire is the best available short-term outcome, but it worries me that a Kerry administration is going to have to kiss a lot of rings to achieve even that.

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