Checks, Balances and War


If you have a spare 20 minutes, you could do worse than to read Michael Ignatieff's long New York Times Magazine cover story that tries to sketch out ways to improve the War on Terror. Ignatieff, an eloquent supporter of Gulf War II who nonetheless maintains that the justifications for it failed the democratic smell test, can be annoying at times with his relentless middle-groundism (example: "Security is as much a right as liberty, but civil libertarians haven't wanted to ask which freedoms we might have to trade in order to keep secure"), but at the end makes several important and timely points about the dangerous temptations of torture, unlimited detention, secrecy, Executive Branch power, and a passive Congress and media. Excerpt:

On all fronts, keeping a war on terror under democratic scrutiny is critical to its operational success. A lesser-evil approach permits preventive detention, where subject to judicial review; coercive interrogation, where subject to executive control; pre-emptive strikes and assassination, where these serve publicly defensible strategic goals. But everything has to be subject to critical review by a free people: free debate, public discussion, Congressional review, in camera if need be, judicial review as a last resort. The war needs to be less secretive, not more. We need to know more about it, not less, even if what we learn is hard. If it comes to it, we need to know, every time we fly, that in case of a hijacking, the president has authorized our pilots to shoot us down if a crash risks killing still more people. In a war on terror, painful truth is far better than lies and illusions.

Above all, we need to keep faith with freedom.

Whole thing here.

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  1. This reminds me of the secrecy with which the 1787 Convention was conducted in; indeed, the fact that the debates were not even officially recorded has proven to be problematic. At the time this secrecy spawned, according to Daniel Hoffman, Governmental Secrecy and the Founding Fathers:

    “a torrent of wild speculation about what was afoot, until rumors that a foreign prince was to be offerred the crown had to be countered by denials leaked to the press.”

  2. Did you know that President Grant tried to foment subversion and revolution in central Canada in 1869? He wanted that portion of Canada to join the U.S. I await the storm of sarcastic remarks.

  3. Furthermore, it should be noted that some people argue that the President has an “inherent executive power to act secretly.” That’s the general tune of the famous Rogovin Memorandum (1976) at least. Rogovin was Special Counsel to the DCI at the time.

  4. Ignatieff’s concept of losing the war on terror is that our constitutional rights are compromised to a degree that we are not really American anymore. In this scenario, a frightened and chastised America has a kind of turtle response and retreats into an authoritarian shell. The article does not really confront the issue of really losing the war on terrorism in the raw, physical sense of total defeat.

    Well, ok…but losing the war agains jihadi terror to me means we are all murdered or forcibly converted to radical Islam. The greatest weapon the jihadis have is moral certainty, and they will shortly marry that to nuclear weapons. They will not be short of suicide teams to deliver them. THAT is losing.

    Ignatieff is in a nightmare-lite world. What will it take to get intelligent and informed people like him to face the real posssibility of defeat…and consider appropriate action? That is the real question that is behind any inquiries entitled ‘can we lose the war on terror?’.

  5. “Security is as much a right as liberty….” Sez who? I’m not sure the govt can guarantee its citizens security from without — from hostile nations or other foreign parties. (And if they wanted to try, they’d do best with a non-imperialist, non-interventionist policy. Sort of like a school bully wondering why he’s universally hated.) I might simply be ignant here, so can someone cite something to the contrary? Frankly, that sounds to me like “No one does that to US and gets away with it!” Well, they did, and (so far) do.

    The only quotations re security that I can think of are the 4th amendment (protecting, of course, the population from unlawful intrusions by *their own* govt) and the ubiquitous Ben Franklin one about deserving neither freedom nor security.

    (I admit I haven’t read the original article. I do have twenty minutes to spare — I just don’t want to.)

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