How Did Obama Become Our Most Imperial President?
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He has few constraints (except those he’s internalized). No one can stop him or countermand his orders. He has a bevy of lawyers at his beck and call to explain the “legality” of his actions. And if he cares to, he can send a robot assassin to kill you, whoever you are, no matter where you may be on planet Earth.
He sounds like a typical villain from a James Bond novel. You know, the kind who captures Bond, tells him his fiendish plan for dominating the planet, ties him up for some no less fiendish torture, and then leaves him behind to gum up the works.
As it happens, though, he’s the president of the United State, a nice guy with a charismatic wife and two lovely kids.
How could this be?
Crash-and-Burn Dreams and One That Came to Be
Sometimes to understand where you are, you need to ransack the past. In this case, to grasp just how this country’s first African-American-constitutional-law-professor-liberal Oval Office holder became the most imperial of all recent imperial presidents, it’s necessary to look back to the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Who today even remembers that time, when it was common to speak of the U.S. as the globe’s “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” the only “sheriff” on planet Earth, and the neocons were boasting of an empire-to-come greater than the British and Roman ones rolled together?
In those first high-flying years after 9/11, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their top officials held three dreams of power and dominance that they planned to make reality. The first was to loose the U.S. military -- a force they fervently believed capable of bringing anybody or any state to heel -- on the Greater Middle East. With it in the lead, they aimed to create a generations-long Pax Americana in the region.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to be only the initial “cakewalk” in a series of a shock-and-awe operations in which Washington would unilaterally rearrange the oil heartlands of the planet, toppling or cowing hostile regimes like the Syrians and the Iranians. (A neocon quip caught the spirit of that moment: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) This, in turn, would position the U.S. to control the planet in a historically unique way, and so prevent the rise of any other great power or bloc of nations resistant to American desires.
Their second dream, linked at the hip to the first, was to create a generations-long Pax Republicana here at home. (“Everyone wants to go to Kansas, but real men want to go to New York and LA.”) In that dream, the Democratic Party, like the Iraqis or the Iranians, would be brought to heel, a new Republican majority funded by corporate America would rule the roost, and above it all would be perched a “ unitary executive,” a president freed of domestic constraints and capable -- by fiat, the signing statement, or simply expanded powers -- of doing just about anything he wanted.
Though less than a decade has passed, both of those dreams already feel like ancient history. Both crashed and burned, leaving behind a Democrat in the White House, an Iraq without an American military garrison, and a still-un-regime-changed Iran. With the arrival on Bush’s watch of a global economic meltdown, those too-big-not-to-fail dreams were relabeled disasters, fed down the memory hole, and are today largely forgotten.