Is This Finally the End of the Imperial Presidency?

Eric Alterman is a visiting professor of media studies at Hofstra University and columnist for the Nation and MSNBC. He is author of the upcoming, "His Democracy Matters: Who Speaks for Americans."

Now that the Iraqi crisis has blown over, everything seems back to normal: Saddam Hussein, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. diplomats are haggling about how much oil should be allowed to sell for how much food and just what constitutes a “palace” and what a potential biochemical weapons armory. The conservative pundits are saying that President Bill Clinton proved what a wimp all Democrats are, while the president’s advisors reply, “Who cares? Look at our approval ratings?”

Meantime, however, something fundamental has changed and no one seems to have noticed: Six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and eight after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War “imperial” presidency has passed into history. Was no one struck by the coincidence of Clinton failing to persuade his own party to pass the “fast track” trade legislation he insisted was so necessary to maintain America’s position of global leader during his “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation with Hussein? Imagine, a U.S. president is smack in the middle of a showdown with an evil dictator--and his own party kicks him in the teeth.

No one appeared to give a moment’s consideration to the old war-horses of the need for national “unity” or the protection of the president’s “credibility.” During the height of the Cold War, U.S. politicians could not even cite basic economic data without being accused of treason. When Adlai E. Stevenson observed, during the 1956 election, that growth under the Eisenhower administration had been “sluggish,” Vice President Richard M. Nixon charged that Stevenson was guilty of “spreading pro-communist propaganda as he has attacked with violent fury the economic system of the United States.”

Some might contend the Cold War presidency ended when the Cold War ended. Not so. When President George Bush was fashioning a response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the grand pooh-bahs of the punditocracy advocated that Congress should not even be allowed to intrude into so important a matter of national security. The president, pundits insisted, had all the authority he needed to go to war without congressional assent--this despite the fact that, before the Cold War, no president would have dared consider so enormous a commitment of force without first invoking the constitutional procedures designed to bind the president, Congress, the people and their military. Bush did eventually ask Congress to authorize war, but only after he committed U.S. forces to an offensive position in Saudi Arabia, through which war became a virtual certainty.

Bush won a slim majority endorsement for war despite the fact that the balance of senators who put him over the top went on record favoring continued sanctions. They voted for war, as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) pointed out at the time, “because they want to prevent the president from being reversed.” According to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Bush and the Congress were living in “a time warp in which we are acting in an old mode in response to a new situation.”


Though he has gone to considerable--many say excessive--lengths to demystify the presidency, Clinton continued to enjoy many benefits of Cold War congressional deference during his first term. The same president who is being sued for sexual harassment was able to commit U.S. troops to Haiti and Bosnia without significant congressional interference.

While neither mission aroused much enthusiasm on Capitol Hill, not even the radical GOP leadership under House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) felt sufficiently empowered to trigger the mechanism of the War Powers Act, which, lest we forget, was invented for just such ambiguous commitments of force. Even though the cast of enemies was a rather sorry one, President Dwight D. Eisenhower could not have asked for greater degree of institutional deference in a contest with Josef Stalin.

But when Clinton entered into his confrontation with Hussein, he looked less like Eisenhower than Rodney Dangerfield. Not only did his own party rejoice in his discomfiture; no one on his side even thought to make the argument. Here was Clinton doing all the right things, sending in carrier battle groups, dispatching an “air expeditionary force,” interrupting the news with stern warnings issued via CNN--and nothing.

Things got so bad that, later in the week, Gingrich and company launched a sneak attack against a bill to ensure that the U.S. met its obligations to the United Nations. This is the same United Nations, you will recall, whose cooperation Washington is seeking in the event of a military showdown in Iraq. Presidential Spokesman Mike McCurry called it “boneheaded,” but he should get used to it. Presidential showdowns can only keep our attention these days, it seems, when the president is Harrison Ford, and he does all the dirty work himself.

Most pundits attributed the fast-track defeat to Clinton’s domestic failures. ‘They’re not scared of him,” explained William Kristol of the Weekly Standard. Others pointed to the power of labor-union cash (the Washington Post’s David Broder) and a broke and dispirited Democratic Party (Mark Shields on CNN’s “Capital Gang”). No one thought to point out that, in the past, Americans had been forced to subsume their economic interests inside a larger Cold War strategy. With the Cold War over, we are free to have honest economic conflicts with nations that were once military allies, but who often took us to the cleaners on trade. The punditocracy may not have gotten the message, but Congress and the people have.

While the collapse of the Cold War presidency does reduce the potential for a unified foreign policy in times of crises, it has its benefits. Many of the so-called crises of the Cold War were manufactured by presidents to close off debate. The strategy originated with a 1948 election-strategy memo to the then-unpopular Harry S. Truman, from his advisors Clark M. Clifford and James A. Rowe Jr. “The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point--real danger of imminent war--the more is there a sense of crisis,” explained Truman’s spin doctors. “In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president.”

The consignment of the Cold War to the ash heap of history opens up the first possibility of a truly democratic-based foreign policy for America in more than a half century. Unfortunately, the democracy part of our political system is hardly in sprightly condition. This might explain why, as the imperial presidency is laid to rest, Congress is investigating the potential sale of our foreign policy to Chinese communist agents. No doubt Clinton would have preferred Truman’s strategy, but not even presidential beggars can be choosers.