The Conscience Of A Conservative

"The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action and legalistic defense. This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise," - Jack Goldsmith, "The Terror Presidency."

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Jack Goldsmith's legal and intellectual career is his conservatism. His view of executive power is much broader than mine - or that of most centrist, let alone liberal, analysts. He was once dubbed one of the "new sovereigntists" because of his hard-right view of presidential power. He has a cramped reading of the Geneva Conventions. But here's the kicker: even he was forced to resign from the Bush administration because of its contempt for democracy, national unity and the rule of law. It's fair to say that when you've gone too far for Jack Goldsmith, things are pretty dire. And unlike almost the entire phalanx of the craven conservative intelligentsia, Goldsmith actually stood up against what can only be described as the war crimes of the current administration. Here's an anecdote that tells you a lot, in Jeff Rosen's must-read yesterday:

Several hours after Goldsmith was sworn in, on Oct. 6, 2003, he recalls that he received a phone call from Gonzales: the White House needed to know as soon as possible whether the Fourth Geneva Convention, which describes protections that explicitly cover civilians in war zones like Iraq, also covered insurgents and terrorists. After several days of study, Goldsmith agreed with lawyers in several other federal agencies, who had concluded that the convention applied to all Iraqi civilians, including terrorists and insurgents. In a meeting with Ashcroft, Goldsmith explained his analysis, which Ashcroft accepted. Later, Goldsmith drove from the Justice Department to the White House for a meeting with Gonzales and [Cheney henchman David] Addington. Goldsmith remembers his deputy Patrick Philbin turning to him in the car and saying: "They're going to be really mad. They're not going to understand our decision. They’ve never been told no." ...

When Goldsmith presented his analysis of the Geneva Conventions at the White House, Addington, according to Goldsmith, became livid. "The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections," Addington replied angrily, according to Goldsmith. "You cannot question his decision."  ...

A perfect summary of the Fuhrerprinzip that Cheney and Bush brought to a vital war, and thereby bungled it. But the lesson seems to me to be more disturbing still.

Goldsmith reveals some of the arguments at work within the administration. There is the notion that only the executive branch has any role in wartime, as if it isn't imperative to include as many patriots from every branch of government and both parties in a collective endeavor. Lincoln, FDR and Churchill understood this. Bush hasn't - hence the tragic failures of the last six years. Then there is the notion that the rule of law is an obstacle to democratic life, rather than its lifeblood. There is the deployment of absurd emotional blackmail rather than argument:

Months later, when Goldsmith tried to question another presidential decision, Addington expressed his views even more pointedly. "If you rule that way," Addington exclaimed in disgust, Goldsmith recalls, "the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands."

And most disturbingly, there is the hope of abolishing legal and democratic restraints on a war-president - in a war defied as a permanent condition - thus:

"We're one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court," Goldsmith recalls Addington telling him in February 2004.

There you have Addington hoping for another terror attack in order to extend the arbitrary rule of one man. The FISA court, of course, would have approved most of what Bush and Cheney wanted in surveillance. So would Congress. But that would have impinged upon the Fuhrerprinzip. If you want to know how the United States became a force for the legitimization of torture, get to know more about David Addington. If you want to know how democracies perish, think about that quote.