Much has been made of President Bush’s supposedly wanting a “blank check” to conduct the war in Iraq. One need not be overly enthusiastic about how the war has gone in order to observe that, for whatever else might be said of it, a “blank check” is not and has never been what the President has sought. Instead, he repeatedly (and perhaps unwisely) went to the United Nations to ask for escalating sanctions on Iraq. He got them, usually by unanimous or nearly unanimous votes of the Security Council. When all-too-predictably they failed to stop either Saddam’s aggressiveness or his innumerable violations of the agreement that ended the Gulf War, and when intelligence services around the world (and not just the CIA) concluded that he was seeking weapons of mass destruction, the President sought from Congress permission to take military action. No such action was taken until after Congress, by a lopsided bipartisan vote, agreed.
The war has taken longer, and has been more costly, than a great many people expected. That much is undeniable. But the charge that the President wrote himself a “blank check” is a product either of amnesia or political calculation, most likely the latter. And of course the charge is virtually always made without reference to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which explicitly makes the president commander-in-chief. Once military action has been approved by Congress and has begun, we cannot — as the Framers knew — have 535 generals running the show.
Although the debate about the putative “blank check” for Iraq and the proposed vote of no confidence in the Attorney General are ostensibly unrelated, in fact there is an important unifying theme — a theme the President’s opponents understand. They know perfectly well that there is no such thing as a vote of “no confidence” in American law. Such things exist in parliamentary systems, like those in Europe, but not here. The basic difference — spelled out in an insightful op-ed by David Rivkin and Lee Casey in Tuesday’s Washington Times, is that in parliamentary systems, the executive branch enjoys nothing approaching the independent and co-equal status with the legislative branch that the Framers wrote into our Constitution. Instead, in those systems, the executive holds power only when it is given to him by parliament. Thus, for example, the British prime minister is not directly elected, nor is he elected by an institution analogous to our Electoral College. The only pivotal “election” he wins is the election to be leader of the party with a majority of seats in Parliament. In this sense, the head of the executive branch works for the legislative branch. He is in effect its employee, dischargable when he loses its confidence. Hence the parliamentary mechanism of the vote of no confidence.
So there is more to the Gonzales controversy than meets the eye. The proposed vote of “no confidence” is political theater, to be sure, but it is also more than that, and more ominous for the very checks and balances the Administration’s opponents claim to want. It is the camel’s nose of a form of government alien to the one that has served us since the Founding. Its underlying message is that the President should be transmogrified into a rump prime minister, one who can be shown the door when he disagrees with Congress on matters of policy.
All this does not come about merely at a random moment. It comes about at the time, and because, Congress wants to write itself a blank check to be commander-in-chief. It wants this for the odd, and (some of us would say) perverse, and ignoble, and dangerous purpose of ordering surrender in Iraq. But the point for now is that Congress is seeking to seize power it does not have by the disguised, and therefore especially insidious, method of giving such credence as it can to a mostly cooked-up “scandal” and the accompanying “no confidence” vote in the Attorney General.
There is, as many liberals have said, a desire among the powerful in Washington for a blank check. What the liberals omit saying is that the recipients are intended to be, and will be, the people in Congress doing the loudest complaining. Their game is a clever and cynical one. It is being played to the usual fawning, and cooperating, grandstand of the Washington press corps. But the most worrisome part is that, for our country’s ability to defend itself, in this war and future ones, it’s not a game at all.