Monday, July 17, 2006

9/11 Changed...What Exactly?

"9/11 changed everything" is a phrase that the American people have heard repeated ad nauseum over the past five years - almost always in the service of ushering in some radical re-configuration of the well established principles that have guided this nation (though sometimes imperfectly) since its inception.

Without a doubt, 9/11 did alter many aspects of our political and personal lives. It opened the American public's eyes to a threat that had been previously underrated, led to a desire to develope a better understanding of the ideas and actors mingling beyond our borders and, at least for a time, brought Americans closer together, reinvigorating the nation with a sense of common cause.

But for some in the Bush administration, and its satellite organizations, "9/11 changed everything" became an all-too-convenient mantra for implementing policies that had been in the works for years and, in some cases, decades. The most obvious example is the Iraq war itself. Though marketed to the public as a post-9/11 exigency through the hyped, exaggerated and fabricated evidence of a nexus between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, invading Iraq had long been on the wish list of the Bush administration's foreign policy braintrust.

Famously, in 1998, the neoconservative think tank, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), sent a letter to then-President Clinton urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power using diplomatic, political and, ultimately, military power. Amongst the signatories to that letter were Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Richard Armitage and Robert Zoellick. Dick Cheney himself signed on to PNAC's statement of principles in 1997 (as did his top aide, Scooter Libby). Unsurprisingly, considering the cast of characters filling out the top posts in the Bush White House, the strategic objective of Iraq was discussed from the earliest moments on. As Ron Suskind notes in The One Percent Doctrine:
...the first National Security Council meeting [held for the newly inaugurated Bush presidency] in January 2001 dealt with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And so did the second. It was a matter of how, not whether.
The reactions of Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Bush himself to the actual attacks on 9/11 were also telling. Each of these key figures showed, from the get-go, a desire to link Iraq to the attacks and, in some ways, a begrudging reluctance to deal with the actual responsible parties in Afghanistan. As Rumsfeld famously lamented at the time, ..."there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq."

So, with the marching orders set from on high (marching orders that were already waiting on hold for the right moment to set in motion), the intelligence community was enlisted in the task of selling this war to the public using the "WMD/al-Qaeda" sales pitch that Paul Wolfowitz described as "something everyone in the administration could agree upon." The rest is unfortunate, and ongoing, history.

The utility of the "9/11 changed everything" narrative would not end with its ability to provide the long sought after shoe-horn needed to pry US forces into Iraq. It proved to be far more useful for its twin, and often related, invocations of such powerful motivators as fear and nationalism (both made more potent by the rawness of the 9/11 attacks themselves). It was a cudgel that was almost irresistible to these politicians - who by nature are in constant search of such rhetorical Holy Grails of political expediency.

Kevin Baker, writing in Harper's, provides a succinct summary of the play by play (as excerpted by the Poor Man):
Again and again, Bush and his confederates have used the cover of national security to push through an uncompromising right-wing agenda. Ignoring the broad leeway already provided the federal government to fight terrorists and conduct domestic surveillance, the administration has gone out of its way to claim vast new powers to detain, spy on, and imprison its own citizens, and to abduct and even torture foreigners - a subject we shall return to. It has used the cover of the war to push through enormous tax cuts, attempt to dismantle the Social Security system, and alter the very social covenant of the nation.
A slightly overdue (as Glenn Greenwald argued quite persuasively) editorial in Saturday's Washington Post highlights the latest developments in the Bush administration's continued push for a sweeping expansion of presidential powers, hiding behind the one-size-fits-all excuse that "9/11 Changed Everything":
SENATE JUDICIARY Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has cast his agreement with the White House on legislation concerning the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance as a compromise - one in which President Bush accepts judicial review of the program. It isn't a compromise, except quite dramatically on the senator's part. Mr. Specter's bill began as a flawed but well-intentioned effort to get the program in front of the courts, but it has been turned into a green light for domestic spying. It must not pass. [...]

This bill is not a compromise but a full-fledged capitulation on the part of the legislative branch to executive claims of power. Mr. Specter has not been briefed on the NSA's program. Yet he's proposing revolutionary changes to the very fiber of the law of domestic surveillance - changes not advocated by key legislators who have detailed knowledge of the program. This week a remarkable congressional debate began on how terrorists should face trial, with Congress finally asserting its role in reining in overbroad assertions of presidential power. What a tragedy it would be if at the same time, it acceded to those powers on the fundamental rights of Americans. [emphasis added]
The NSA surveillance program is part of a broader strategy of establishing a "unitary executive" - a concept that I discussed at greater length here and here. In short, the "unitary executive" theory calls for a subtstantial and permanent increase in the executive branch's power, at the expense of the other two branches and the larger system of checks and balances. Separation of powers would be one of the most prominent casualties - with a litany of civil liberties also piling up in the morgue. It is nothing if not radical in scope, but it is certainly not new. And it was not conceived of in the aftermath of the attacks of September the 11th.

Again, Ron Suskind points out a slightly inconvenient chronological sequence as background to Bush's request for expanded powers in the wake of 9/11:
On Friday, September 14, when the President of the United States wanted a grant of special powers from Congress, his team arrived on Capitol Hill well prepared.

It so happened that administration lawyers had for months been incubating theories about how to expand presidential power. The ideas were originally seeded by the Vice President, a believer, since the harrowing days in the death throes of the Nixon administration, that executive power had been dangerously diminished.
The Bush administration, led by Cheney and his ideological brethren manning key legal posts, hasn't looked back since. Using a careful blend of fear and nationalism, the champions of a "unitary executive" have attempted to shroud their long anticipated moves in the cloak of 9/11. But in reality, they were laying the groundwork for this push well before those attacks ever took place. Instead of having to attempt incremental implementation, however, 9/11 gave them the casus belli needed to launch a broad war on civil liberties and the separation of powers doctrine that have each helped to maintain relatively stable political systems in this nation for over two hundred years. Like no other time in this nation's history, these principles are under a constant, direct and potent assualt from a reckless executive branch, a compliant Congress and a befuddled media.

In that sense, 9/11 did change everything.

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