26 June 2004

Bush's Mistaken View of US Democracy

If, in the president's view, the goodness of Americans and the nobility of our mission are self-evident, then the failure of peoples around the world to see the struggle in Iraq the same way we do means that they are 'enemies of freedom.' Fighters opposing American power, even if they are residents of occupied countries, do not merit the protections of international law. Institutional restraints on the exercise of power by Americans in detention centers and prisons can, in this view, safely be relaxed. Moreover, constitutional protections can be denied even to American citizens, arrested in the United States, when they are suspected of being 'enemy combatants.'

From James Madison's point of view, on the other hand, the abuses of Abu Ghraib would have been entirely explicable. The founding fathers, and great American leaders ever since, understood that without institutional restraints, voluntarily followed and supported by the top leadership, such abuses are virtually inevitable. This doesn't mean that Americans are 'bad' people, just that they are human - like Iraqis, Afghans, Germans, Japanese, and every other nationality and race.

If the struggle against terrorism were to be carried out consistently with the institutional theory embedded in the U.S. Constitution, America's leaders would be well aware of the potential for abuse - even by decent patriots. They would have ensured not only that the Constitution was upheld at home, but that the more limited protections embodied in international law would have been conscientiously applied to people living under American occupation, or otherwise within U.S. control.

Behind the debate about the conduct of the war in Iraq, and the occupation, is a larger divide - between those Americans who believe that their unique virtues should permit them to act above the law, and those who believe that people in authority, necessarily imperfect, must be constrained by institutions and by law. Those who understand and believe in the theory of the American Constitution should reject the Bush administration's political theory of personal good and evil. We must continue to insist that the United States is a 'government of laws and not of men.'

Australia does not have the same tradition of checks and balances, even through our constitution is an adaptation of the US constitution. Some of us do have the Manichaean view of the world.

As Howard told parliament on 23 October 2003:

The President of the United States and I first met face-to-face on 10 September 2001. As we celebrated at the naval dockyard in Washington the shared partnership of the ANZUS alliance neither of us knew what lay ahead. The next day the world did change, and we saw arising out of those events the character and the strength and the leadership of the man we welcome today. George Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, rallied his own people and the people of the world in the fight against terrorism. He reminded us then, as we should be reminded today, that terrorists oppose nations such as the United States and Australia not because of what we have done but because of who we are and because of the values that we hold in common, and that terrorism-and we should remind ourselves of this again and again-is as much the enemy of Islam as it is the enemy of Judaism or Christianity.

If you substituted 'the West' or 'the coalition' for 'United States' you would describe exactly the way the Man of Steel views the world. I think it is a deeply flawed view. It is as though we took the form, without the content, of the Madisonian tradition and shaped it into something much less impressive. Just as Bush does.

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