Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

That George W. Bush’s administration would pose a danger to basic liberties was clear as soon as we saw the brown-shirt methods and state action to disenfranchise voters in Florida and the selection of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Subsequent developments, from the passage of the Patriot Act to the denial of habeas corpus to Americans labeled “enemy combatants” and the use of torture as a “technique” of “interrogation” have all been consistent with that beginning.

I focus on three recent events to bring home the seriousness of what we face: the torture outrages in Abu Ghraib, the meaning of the “transfer of sovereignty,” and the June 28 Supreme Court decisions in the Rasul and the Odah, Hamdi, and Padilla cases.

Anyone who watched the performance of Donald Rumsfeld at the Senate hearings will know that the secretary of defense’s main regret about the events at Abu Ghraib is that they were made public. Outside the Senate precincts, Rumsfeld is a realist: if you want an empire, this is what it takes. Hannah Arendt told us in The Origins of Totalitarianism how the empires of the nineteenth century erected a special police/military/bureaucratic apparatus to rule their colonies, an apparatus carefully separated from the republican institutions of the mother country. Arendt’s point was that state methods and administrative structures devised for the colonies would eventually infect and destroy republican institutions and freedoms at home.

Are we in that kind of danger? Isn’t our occupation of Iraq intended to lead the other way—to send democracy to Iraq, rather than bring tyranny to America? The answer is by no means clear: consider the symbolism of the prison abuses. Every Iraqi knows that Abu Ghraib stood for the power of a ruler without constraints. If members of the American army command had meant to signal to Iraqis a limited and temporary occupation, they would not have used this place in exactly the way it was used by the tyrant who preceded them.

What about the “transfer of sovereignty”? It took Zbigniew Brzezinski, an analyst with an inside knowledge of Stalinist Newspeak, to provide the appropriate reference and concepts to describe this turn of policy. “Let’s not,” said Brzezinski, “reproduce the Orwellian language of the Bush administration,” noting that they claim to free Iraq while they occupy it; to fight terror while they create the conditions for new terror; to build a democracy while they permit a designated puppet to impose martial law; to care for the welfare of the Iraqi people while they privatize and buy up the most important public industries. What we are seeing is not the “transfer of sovereignty” to an autonomous state, but the creation of a satellite government. If the Americans really intend to leave, they would have set up a timetable for their departure at the moment of “transfer” to reassure the Iraqis. Instead they are calling for...