Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Potomac or the Tiber?

I had, for a while, referred to Bush-era Washington as "Weimar on the Potomac", a phrase I had retired in my mind until I heard the words "death panels" for the first time. The toxic mix of a victimized, self-pitying nationalism and a belief that traitors in their midst were just aching to stab them in the back reminded me of nothing so much as the late German republic.

But I just finished reading the fabulous Rubicon by Tom Holland, so you'll pardon me if a different metaphor springs to mind when we start seeing people advocate for a military solution to "the Obama problem". (via Balloon-Juice and Chet) Though of course, describing anything as "the X problem" has other, far more sinister, German overtones.

You can still read the full text of the original article here, though its original patron seems to have disowned both the text and the author. What's intriguing to me is less the hypothetical solution and more the grievances. John Perry writes:
Top military officers can see the Constitution they are sworn to defend being trampled as American institutions and enterprises are nationalized.

They can see that Americans are increasingly alarmed that this nation, under President Barack Obama, may not even be recognizable as America by the 2012 election, in which he will surely seek continuation in office.

They can see that the economy -- ravaged by deficits, taxes, unemployment, and impending inflation -- is financially reliant on foreign lender governments.
None of these things, of course, started with Obama himself. Moreover, the idea that the US officer corps is going to displace the elected Commander-in-Chief over the nationalization of GM and Chrysler is... well, funny in many senses. But I suspect that this is an aperitif in the multi-course dinner of crazy that Perry is serving up, because he's just described running for re-election as a sinister plot to "seek continuation in office."
They can see this president waging undeclared war on the intelligence community, without whose rigorous and independent functions the armed services are rendered blind in an ever-more hostile world overseas and at home.
By publicly declaring that the members of the intelligence community who followed illegal orders from their president will face... no consequences whatsoever?
They can see the dismantling of defenses against missiles targeted at this nation by avowed enemies, even as America's troop strength is allowed to sag.
Ooh, a double-barreled crazy! First, the missile defense is being replaced with something that works, not eliminated. Secondly, in what universe is increasing US troop levels and military spending synonymous with "allow[ing] to sag?" The crazyverse, that's where. Bonus: the avowed reason for Polish missile defense was the threat from Iran, and Iranian missiles can in no way threatan US soil, unless we define "US soil" as the territory of any US ally, formal or otherwise.
So, if you are one of those observant military professionals, what do you do?

Wait until this president bungles into losing the war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's arsenal of nuclear bombs falls into the hands of militant Islam?

Wait until Israel is forced to launch air strikes on Iran's nuclear-bomb plants, and the Middle East explodes, destabilizing or subjugating the Free World?
Well, if I were a high-ranking general upset about these things, I might ask myself why I'd stayed silent for the eight years of the Bush Administraion instead of getting so exercised during the eight months of the Obama Administration. But then, I'm not a high-ranking general. And if I were in a room with a bunch of them, I would assume that we would all agree that the only legal, constitutional, and moral answer to give is "we obey the President of the United States of America, or we resign." But here comes the meat of Perry's conspiracy:
Will the day come when patriotic general and flag officers sit down with the president, or with those who control him, and work out the national equivalent of a "family intervention," with some form of limited, shared responsibility?

Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars. Having bonded with his twin teleprompters, the president would be detailed for ceremonial speech-making.
"Imagine a coup to defend the Constitution..."... from the duly elected government bound by that constitution. Nice. It's all high-octane crazy talk, bound together with the fevered imaginations of the teabaggers and the like. But I note that the list of grievances is pretty thin with actual constitutional violations -- no unlawful search and seizures, no trampling of states' rights, no restriction of the first or second ammendment. Instead, what motivates Perry is the fear that America will be put at risk by losing wars at the frontiers of its influence. And with the crack about letting enemies target missiles at America, he's really associating the desires of the military-industrial complex with the needs of the country.

And of course, this is where we come back to Rome. Rome had a military-economic complex of its own, well before the fall of the Republic. Wars in Asia (really in the Balkans, Turkey, and Syria) made generals and roman agents rich, rich, rich, so there was a constant desire to find new reasons to drum up "self-defense" wars against the next uppity Asian king. The first General to march on Rome -- as a defender of the constitution, of course -- was Sulla, who wanted to ensure that he be given the command of one of an apparently lucrative campaign against the king Mithridates. Sulla had been named General by the Senate, his rival Marius had been named General by the Plebian Assembly. Roman custom held that the assembly was superior to the Senate, but the Roman legions under Sulla's command -- and his conservative allies in the Senate -- had other ideas.

What's interesting to think about in all this, of course, is how quickly things changed for the Romans. The Republic had been roiled by civil strife for some time, but it was only with the election of the first Gracchi brother in the 130s that blood was actually shed in Roman politics. A decade later the second Gracchi brother was killed (and if you're thinking "Kennedy" here, you should really read Holland's book.) Then the great Social War erupts as Italian cities begin rejecting Roman power, and Sulla becomes the champion of Rome by bringing Italy to heel. Then, before the embers of the Social War can even cool, Sulla marches on Rome for the first time. This all occurs within about 50 years -- when the Republic's domestic politics had enjoyed 400 years of peace before that. Or, to put it another way, enough time had passed since the last true foreign threat to the Republic (Hannibal had been defeated in 202 BC) that nobody could really remember a time when Rome itself had been under threat. By 81 BC, Rome had been invaded by Romans, twice. 20 years later, Caesar's inexorable rise had already begun.

Here's my point. Politics are fragile. They are bound, more than we like to admit, by convention and custom, and not by laws themselves. The law itself, of course, can be bent to suit convention and custom as necessary -- so Canadian courts rule that Harper breaking his own fixed-election law isn't actually illegal because "confidence" of Parliament is something defined more by custom than by law. (And the court isn't wrong!) And when actors within our political system begin to start throwing custom out the window, then things can change very, very rapidly.

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