On a spectacular September morning more than seven years ago, our world changed. I remain one of those who believe that that day remains indelible, and its lesson unforgettable. The civilized democratic world came under attack from a small but lethal band of religious fanatics bent on destroying free societies, and, more terrifyingly, eager to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction that could make 9/11 look like a dry run.
We are still under attack.
This confluence of fundamentalism and lethal technology is the greatest danger of our time. And in the last seven years, the threat has not abated. Al Qaeda remains at large, and the very top leadership that planned and executed 9/11 is alive. They have reconstituted a base of sorts in Pakistan. They have scored several major propaganda victories - from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay to trapping most of the US military in an unending counter-insurgency in one country where al Qaeda was weak before 2002, Iraq. Islamist factions in Pakistan's government are horrifyingly close to nuclear technology. Iran has gained in power and influence in the Middle East and its ability to launch and use nuclear weapons is much greater than it was on 9/11. At its best, the Iraq war will lead to a fractured petro-state, closely allied with Iran, beset by constant infighting and terrorism. At its worst, Iraq will keep over 100,000 young Americans trapped there for the rest of our lives. The war in Afghanistan against the Taliban is at a seven year nadir.
Now the really bad news: the view of co-presidents Bush and Cheney is that this is a war that can and should be controlled by only one branch of government and a war in which the job of the citizenry is to shop. It is a global war where force of arms remains too often a first resort and in which talking to our enemies is regarded as "the white flag of surrender," instead of another tool at our disposal. It is a war where the American government has alienated - in some cases deeply - democratic allies whose police work and intelligence we desperately need. I do not doubt that military force is part of the mix to defeat this threat. (Like everyone else, I'm heartened that general Petraeus has introduced some minimal intelligence into the occupation of Iraq, although I fear it has merely made our presence more protracted and our withdrawal more difficult.) But the crudeness with which military force has been deployed, the absence of strategy or even due diligence in the execution of the long war, and the massive public relations blunders which have led the United States to lose a propaganda war against a bunch of murderous, medieval loons are unforgivable.
These mistakes were compounded - and in large part created - by what I believe will one day be seen as the core event of the last eight years: the collapse of constitutional order and the rule of law fomented in a mixture of hubris and laziness by the president himself. It is now indisputable that the president and vice-president of the United States engineered a de facto coup against the constitution after 9/11, declaring themselves above any law, any treaty, and any basic moral norm in their misguided mission to rid the world of evil. This blog has watched this process with increasing dismay - and watched several attempts to bring the US back to sanity foiled by a relentless and unhinged vice-president's office.
Cheney and Bush, unlike any presidency in American history, have dangerously pushed constitutional government to the brink of collapse. They did not merely assert a unified executive in which actions and regulations reserved to the executive branch were kept free from Congressional and judicial tampering. That is a perfectly defensible position, especially in wartime. They did not merely act in the immediate wake of an emergency to protect American citizens swiftly - again a perfectly legitimate use of executive power, unhampered by Congress or courts. They declared such power to be unlimited; they asserted also that it was as permanent as the emergency they declared; they claimed their dictatorial powers were inherent in the presidency itself, and above any legal constraints; they ordered their own lawyers to provide retroactive and laughable legal immunity for their crimes; they by-passed all the usual and necessary checks within the executive branch to ensure prudence and legality and self-doubt in the conduct of a war; they asserted that emergency war powers applied to the territory of the United States itself; they claimed the right to seize anyone - anyone, citizen or not - they deemed an "enemy combatant," to hold them indefinitely with no due process and to torture them until they became incoherent, broken, brutalized shells of human beings, if they survived at all. They did this to the guilty and they did this to the innocent. But they also had no way of reliably knowing which was which and who was who. Never before in wartime has the precious, sacred inheritance of free people been treated with such contempt by the leaders of the democratic West.
They seized countless individuals with no trials and no hearings. They tortured dozens to death. They subjected many more to some of the worst psychological torture techniques devised by Communist totalitarians and the worst physical suffering devised by the Gestapo. They crossed lines no American president had ever crossed before. They withdrew the US from the Geneva Conventions - and did so secretly. They tapped American's phones without warrants, and forced many of their randomly grabbed prisoners into the black hole of insanity. They set up secret sites in former Soviet gulags to torture their victims. They single-handedly devastated America's reputation for human rights and the rule of law in the minds of the vast majority of people in other Western democracies, let alone the developing world, let alone the millions of Muslims across the Middle East who now suspect that America is not really better than their own thugocracies, that America also tortures when it wants to, that the shining city on a hill is actually a place where men above the law can do anything they want to other human beings in their custody.
No economic mismanagement can compare with this attack on the basic institutions of our democracy and the constitution. No incompetence in conducting an occupation can be deemed comparable with this level of criminality and indecency. No reaction to a natural disaster, however hapless and negligent, is as grave as this crime. No financial crisis eclipses it in gravity. The president's oath is to protect the constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. Instead, the president himself became an enemy to the constitution he swore to uphold.
This is the depth of the predicament the United States is in. The Islamist threat remains; but the Constitution is in deep disrepair, the military stretched to breaking point, the national debt doubled, and America's reputation in terrible shape. More important, the president and vice-president deeply damaged the reliability and integrity of America's intelligence services, creating a self-perpetuating loop of phony intelligence procured by torture which then justified more torture which led to worse intelligence. It will be decades before we learn the full extent of the damage Bush and Cheney have done to the country's ability to find out what the enemy is really up to, how much risk these sadists and goons have subjected us to, how much damage to this country they may have facilitated by filling intelligence with the garbage always created by torture. We do know that their policy has led to just one successful prosecution - and that many guilty figures will escape justice because torture has tainted the legal process beyond repair.