IN THE NEWS
A lot of people have already commented on the final question for Bush in the last presidential debate. His inability to name any mistakes he's made may not have been his worst moment in the debate (for example, I hid my face from the television during his bizarre and inaccurate description of the Dred Scott case), but it was pretty bad. While he fumbled a question that every job candidate gets asked, and he could have guessed was coming, his most disturbing moment was when he articulated his theory of accountability--or lack thereof.
We've already had indications that Bush doesn't feel bound by the normal rules of cultural and Constitutional accountability. The infamous Defense Department white paper on the use of torture in terrorist interrogations, a document whose sentiments have been echoed in public by Bush and his top aides, argues that all authority emanates from the president, who can decide when the Constitution does and does not apply. The Administration justifies its ugly treatment of "enemy combatants," material witnesses, and terrorist suspects on the grounds of necessity, not the Constitution--and the person in the White House, according to their thinking, who decides what's necessary. (Thankfully, the Supreme Court slapped down the Administration's handling of accused enemy combatants.) As I've argued earlier in this blog, the "dog that didn't bark in the night," to borrow a term from Arthur Conan Doyle, is the complete non-discussion of whether the United States should have formally declared war on Iraq. The Congress failed to push the question; the Administration was happy to wage a war without the question ever being raised.
There is a context, therefore, for this statement Bush made during the last debate:
But history will look back, and I'm fully prepared to accept any mistakes that history judges to my administration, because the president makes the decisions, the president has to take the responsibility.
This isn't the first time Bush has made this argument. His theory of accountability more or less boils down to the following:
- The president makes decisions, including whether to wage war.
- The nation, including the two other branches of government, rally behind him.
- Critics should remain silent, since they otherwise might demoralize the troops and give comfort to our enemies.
- Years after the end of a president's term, history will judge whether or not he made good decisions.
That's hardly a description of accountability, in the sense that leaders take responsibility in the here and now for decisions gone awry. Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister of Great Britain because of the Suez Crisis. Lyndon Johnson's informal circle of advisors convinced him that, in the interests of the nation, he should not run for re-election. John Profumo resigned from Harold Wilson's cabinet when the newspapers ran a story that this mistress, Christine Keeler, had also been romantically involved with a Soviet naval attache.
In the American political system, the system of checks and balances ensures liberty by blurring and confusing responsibilities. That does not mean, however, that accountability for your own actions does not exist. When you insist on centralizing warmaking powers in your own hands, you don't even have the blurring effect of checks and balances to disguise your mistakes. Unless you're assuming the powers of a Byzantine emperor, responsible only to God and history, there is some reckoning you need to face in the here and now.
The election is one way to enforce accountability. The statement, "You shouldn't change horses mid-stream," is both inane and anti-democratic. The missions in Somalia and the no-fly zones in Iraq survived the transition from George Bush Sr. to Bill Clinton. The mission in the Balkans survived the transition from Clinton to Bush Jr. If Kerry is elected, the mission in Iraq will survive. And even though Bush believes himself answerable only to God and history, the rest of the nation may feel otherwise.