Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Steven Den Beste has written a long post about what amounts to two concepts: the "intoxication of executive power", and Chairman Arafat.

The first one is a defense of the 22nd Amendment; the idea that a president should not be allowed to hold office for more than two terms. Now, to be honest, term limits are a concept that has always bothered me and probably always will- it's a direct limitation of the power of the voters, because it removes from them the opportunity to choose who they wish to be president for what appears to be entirely arbitrary reasons. (There might be an argument to be made about the power of incumbents, but let's be honest- there's no way that the American party system and the American people wouldn't overcome that if the situation warranted it.)

His defense of it is actually fairly weak, to my surprise: he only defends it by saying that Washington set a precedent because he left office after only two terms, and that Nixon was a bad president and would have wanted to retain power for more than two terms. (The fact that he would need to gain the support of the electorate seems to elude him- like a lot of conservatives, he seems oddly hostile to democracy in some respects). The problem, of course, is that term limits create a host of issues in and of themselves, chief among them being the problem of the "lame duck"... a president who knows he cannot be reelected and therefore is not respected by the country or other members of the government. This problem has a darker side as well, however... a politician that does not face the prospect of reelection is free to do pretty much whatever he wishes, without having to worry about whether the electorate agrees or not- and thanks to the relative power of executive orders and the various subbranches of the executive, there's an awful lot he can do. In other (in my mind more democratic) systems, this never happens... a prime minister or president is always looking towards the next election, and his (or her) actions are limited by that.

Plus, there's the threat of a president using extra-constitutional methods to keep power owing to the lack of constitutional ones- this can lead to the "legitimate dictator" scenario I mentioned earlier in situations where said president is extremely popular. This doesn't normally happen in the United States, but certainly has in South America.

So much for the 22nd Amendment (which I still cynically believe was a reaction to the incredible success of FDR)... what about Arafat? Well, Den Beste is trying to argue that the Bush position is legitimate because "Arafat is not the Palestinian people". Well, no, he isn't- but his argument that an elected Arafat is somehow divisible from the Palestinians is an entirely erroneous one- if they choose him as their representative, then he is indeed their representative... the mocking use of "L'etat, c'est moi" is actually quite true, just as it is with the American president as head of state or, in fact, any other head of state. And as I said earlier, neither Bush nor Den Beste gets to choose who the legitimate leader of Palestine is... only the Palestinians. They can react to that choice as they wish, of course, but they do not have either the power or the authority to choose Palestine's own leaders unless they are willing to assert their own sovereignty over Palestine. That, um, would be problematic.

(The hatred of Powell and, by extension, of being reasonable and willing to compromise in any respect on the part of the Right still baffles me considering he was their hero a half-decade ago, but that's not important. They can hate him if they wish.)

What links these two elements together is Den Beste's notion of "the intoxication of power"... the idea that the powerful become accustomed and eventually enjoy power, and are loathe to give it away. My reaction upon reading the article is "so?" If someone loves leadership and power, then so be it. Indeed, I don't necessarily think the idea of a leader that likes being a leader is a bad one- the sort of self-loathing that conservatives seem to desire in a government would be baffling if it weren't so silly. Should businessmen hate being in business? Should doctors hate healing? Why is government any different? The important question is whether they use that power and leadership wisely, and whether they can be removed when the people decide that they no longer want that person as their leader. In the American system, there's no way a president can retain power if the people decide they want him to go- it's their decision, not his, and if they want an "intoxicated" president then that's their choice. (Or was until the 22nd Amendment came to be.) While there is a danger that a president that has been voted out might try to hold power, what difference is there between that danger and that of a president who faces a term limit in the face, except that the former has fought and lost an election and the latter has four years to prepare for the day he seizes control and convince the people that (as they rightly intuit) term limits are a seizure of their own power to decide their own leadership? So it is with Arafat... whether he loves being President or not is immaterial if the Palestinians vote for him (which is by no means a for-gone conclusion considering the current protests), but giving him no way out means he has zero incentives to change anything and every reason to convince the Palestinian people that their right to choose their own leaders has been stolen from them by the United States.

I'd like to close with this quote from the article:

If the Palestinians are given a real choice, and a real opportunity to express it, and if they are presented with a situation where there is a substantial price to be paid for selecting Arafat again, Arafat will lose.

If you truly believe this, Steven, then put your money where your mouth is and allow the Palestinians to make a real choice. Or just admit that you have as little patience for real democracy as your comments on term limits seem to suggest, and stop wasting everybody else's time.

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