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Commentary

The President Is Reading a Book, I’m Afraid


     
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President George W. Bush has been reading a book. At least, he claims to have been reading one. I know what you’re thinking, but the First Shrub swears that he has been reading more than just the funny papers lately. We’d all be better off, however, if he had stuck to the comics.

In an interview with an Associated Press reporter, Bush said that on his vacation he had been reading a recently published book by Eliot A. Cohen, The Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. Cohen is a well-known neocon war-hawk and all-around armchair warrior who professes “strategic studies” at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and, in his spare time, ponders mega-deaths (his own not included) with other lusty members of the Defense Policy Board. The quintessential civilian go-getter, he never met a war he didn’t want to send somebody else to fight and die in.

The Supreme Command consists of case studies of how four “statesmen”—Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion—successfully managed to make their generals act more vigorously than those officers really wanted to act. By spurring their too-timid generals, these four micro-managing commanders-in-chief supposedly got superior results from their war-making efforts. The common soldiers who were fed into the consuming maw of war under these worthies might have given us a different opinion, but dead men don’t make good critics.

So, what are we to make of Bush’s reading of this book, assuming that he really has been reading it? The short answer is that this is not good news for the world. Such reading seems calculated to bend the president’s mind, never a mighty organ in any event, toward thinking of himself in Lincolnian or Churchillian terms. Indeed, those of us who have had the stomach to observe his public strutting and puffing since September 11 might have suspected that his juvenile sensibilities would be drawn all too readily toward such a grandiose self-conception. After all, does he but speak, and mighty armadas are launched on a global war against evil?

As he clears brush at his Texas digs and takes his jogs with the Secret Service boys, Bush may fancy that he is cut from the same cloth as his Republican predecessor Theodore Roosevelt—he of the strenuous life and the more-than-a-bit balmy conception of man’s relation to his fellow man, most of whom he would gladly crush like bugs under his manly jackboots. Why worry, the current president might be thinking, about the views of a wimp such as Colin Powell? What does he know about war, in comparison with, say, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, whose heroic military service has long been the stuff of legend?

Unfortunately for the world, the president’s bedtime perusal of Cohen’s Supreme Command may set his childish imagination aflame with visions of Great Statesmanship. “Damn,” he may think, expelling a masculine expletive, “I too can be a Lincoln or a Churchill.” Devoutly may we all hope that the opportunity evades him, for both of those storied “statesmen” were monsters whose hands were stained beyond cleansing with innocent blood. Yet a man would need an adult sensibility to understand such realities, and Bush II, it seems clear, has a mind that never matured, if indeed it had the potential for such maturation in the first place. Manifestly, he is but a boy playing with immense, lethal toys. Yet when he says jump, legions of heavily armed men ask: how high?

When word got out that Bush was reading a book, reporters sought out gurus to cogitate on this strange development and to cough up appraisals, and those gurus, being deep thinkers, could not resist suggesting other books that the president might profitably read, should he ever decide again to read a book. One talking head recommended Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Another touted October Fury, Peter Huchthausen’s book on the Cuban missile crisis. Still another sage pointed to Churchill’s three volumes on World War II, as if the Shrub were capable of such heavy lifting.

Very well, I can play this game. I recommend that the president read “The Constitution of the United States.” It’s short; he can handle it. And, after, it’s what he swore to “preserve, protect, and defend” when he took office, so he might have some interest in reading it. If he’s really pressed for time, he can skip everything except Article II, Section 2, which in just three short paragraphs describes the constitutional duties of the president of the United States. Sure enough, as the president’s flunkies never cease telling the press, the president’s first constitutional power is to “be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.” But that’s all, along those lines: just to be commander in chief. There’s not even so much as a hint that the president has constitutional authority to commit the country to war—that power is obviously lodged in Article I, where the powers of Congress are enumerated. Certainly, the Constitution does not authorize the executive to engage the nation’s armed forces in a “preemptive war” against Iraq, a small, impoverished country halfway around the world that does not now pose a serious threat to the security of the American people who have the wit to steer clear of it and its immediate environs.

If the president should want to read further, perhaps to find out how the powers of the presidency have been so vastly and unjustifiably enlarged over time, until presidents now consider themselves warranted in acting as absolute tyrants over their own people and those of other countries as well, he might well read two books edited by John V. Denson, The Costs of War (1997) and Reassessing the Presidency (2001).

Clemenceau famously declared that war is too important to be left to the generals. It’s a no-brainer to see that war is too important to be left to the likes of Bush, Cohen, Perle, Wolfowitz, and company.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


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The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.






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