Bush-era Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo doesn't have hordes of fans. His memos paved the way for waterboarding and other controversial policies. As Yoo embarks on an extended media campaign to bolster his book--and his public image--many commentators are reflecting on what may be his most lasting contribution: vastly expanding White House powers. On the left, most condemn Yoo for enabling some of the Bush administration's worst practices. Even Yoo's conservative defenders argue that he was merely a loyal public servant whose honest work was distorted by the White House.
Enter Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute and contributor to many publications (including The Atlantic). In the cover story for Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Isaacson ably dismantles Yoo's legal reasoning. But he argues that blame for expanding executive power goes beyond Yoo or even his bosses, placing it within American history:
[T]he course of American history has followed Yoo's interpretation. Congress has formally declared war only five times in American history, the most recent being for World War II. Many other engagements, including the current ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, have relied on more informal resolutions, and the War Powers Resolution passed in the wake of the Vietnam War created an uneasy shared arrangement with Congress that most subsequent presidents have not fully complied with.
Whatever you think of this accumulation of power in the hands of the presidency, Congress has pretty much acquiesced in the trend. For better or worse, it seems to believe that the complex national security issues of our day require less fettered executive power.
Though Isaacson does not pardon Yoo, he looks beyond the villain du jour to find much larger historical and political forces at work. The real culprit, he argues, is the entire arc of American history, and Congress for refusing to stand in the way.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.