When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, his basic strategy was to stake out a position and refuse to budge, hoping to bully others into acquiescing. Only when met with strong opposition did he back down and compromise. We are seeing the same strategy in his policy over Iraq. In the past weeks, the president has attempted to bully the United Nations and now Congress into allowing him to attack Iraq and depose its leader. He is likely to get his wish. But the larger problem is not what will happen if no one stands up to Saddam Hussein. It is what will happen if no one stands up to the president and his vision of moral clarity.
Our Constitution left the power to declare war to Congress because of the fear that if the president could act unilaterally, he might seek to aggrandize himself by taking the country into one war after another. Although the president could always defend the nation if attacked, he could not initiate hostilities without Congress’ approval. In the 20th century, Congress’ role has receded of necessity, so the president’s power to make war has been hemmed in largely by domestic politics, the threat of nuclear reprisal and international law.
The Bush administration’s new policy of pre-emptive attacks is a dangerous addition to this mixture, creating a host of bad incentives. Simply by announcing future threats that deserve pre-emptive action, presidents can seize control of the political stage. A president who takes the country to war pushes aside all other concerns. By shifting the nation’s forces from one military offensive to another, he can divert attention from domestic failures and foreign policy blunders. The more often the president attacks other countries pre-emptively, the more likely it becomes that our country will be attacked in turn. The president can then justify additional military action in response, and no patriotic American will oppose it.
In this way, the president can effectively govern through war, with disastrous consequences for the nation and for the world. Armed with the doctrine of military pre-emption, the perpetual political campaign perfected by our last president might well become the perpetual military campaign of future presidents.
President Bush had good reason to take us to war after Sept. 11. Still, he has not accomplished his stated goal of eliminating al Qaeda or capturing Osama bin Laden. With victory not achieved and Afghanistan still unstable, he has now attempted to shift our attention to a new war with Iraq. Again, he may well have excellent reasons for doing so. But we must pay attention to the larger picture. Members of Congress debating authorization for an attack on Iraq should ask the president tough questions about what future military actions he is considering. The way the president’s foreign policy is proceeding, Iraq may not be the last war he asks us to fight.
The president is right about one thing, however. Today the world faces a single man armed with weapons of mass destruction, manifesting an aggressive, bullying attitude, who may well plunge the world into chaos and bloodshed if he miscalculates. This person, belligerent, arrogant and sure of himself, truly is the most dangerous person on Earth. The problem is that his name is George W. Bush, and he is our president.
Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. His latest book is “The Laws of Change” (Schocken Books, 2002).