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February 19, 2008

Will's Questions for McCain

George Will wrote a column this weekend with five questions for John McCain that he intended would "reveal what constitutional limits -- if any -- [McCain] accepts on the powers of the presidency regarding foreign and military policies." These are unserious questions and with two exceptions they don't even touch on McCain's beliefs about constitutional limits on executive power.


First, he says war with Iran would be less dreadful than an Iran with nuclear arms. Why does he think, as his statement implies, that a nuclear Iran would be, unlike the Soviet Union, undeterrable and not susceptible to long-term containment until internal dynamics alter the regime?

I can't speak for Senator McCain, but there are a few reasons to believe that Iran is not susceptible to the same containment and deterrence policies that kept the Soviet Union in check. First, and most obviously, Iran's rulers do not always make rational decisions. Prior to the 2005 arrival of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was possible to make a plausible argument that the mullahs were rational actors who would not do things that would without question bring about the end of their regime. That situation no longer obtains with Ahmadinejad gathering populist support and the mullah's split.

Second, in the minds of the Soviets, they could afford to wait out the U.S. policies. As far as they knew, communism was the right and natural progression of polity. There was no need to engage in a suicidal war with the United States because capitalism would evolve into communism on its own, if they could just wait long enough. No similar philosophical acculturation exists to stay the hands of Iran's masters. In fact, the opposite is true: they are commanded by their religion to conquer all and convert by the sword.

Third, deterrence of the MAD variety was based on the idea that the source of a nuclear threat could be immediately identified. Retaliation wouldn't take days, but rather minutes because there would be no question about who just blew up New York. With at least nine nuclear-armed states and several more working on it, that is no longer the case; bombs in trucks do not leave convenient trails back to their points of launch.

What does all this have to do with McCain's theories of presidential power? Beats me. I think Will just wants to get McCain on the record talking about Iran again.

Second, many hundreds of bombing sorties -- serious warfare -- would be required to justify confidence that Iran's nuclear program had been incapacitated for the foreseeable future. Does McCain believe that a president is constitutionally empowered to launch such a protracted preventive war without congressional authorization?

Well at least this one reaches the purported reason for these questions. Let's start by assuming that Will is correct about the "many hundreds of bombing sorties." I suspect that McCain is quite familiar with the War Powers Act, which gives a president 60 days to engage in martial hostilities. Beyond that, of course a president is constitutionally empowered to defend our country, yes, even through preventive war. FYNQ.

Third, why would any president not repelling a sudden attack want to enter the pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government?

Do you see what I mean about these being unserious questions? Even President Clinton knew the answer to this one: "And I believe that as strongly as I can say, it was the right thing to do. It was the moral thing to do. And our children will have a better world because we have now stood [blah blah blah]."

It's why President Roosevelt gave PM Churchill those destroyers despite the Neutrality Acts. It's the same reason that President Bush and Congress took us back to Iraq. Sometimes a president must to things that congressfolk don't like. It's not about what they "want." It's about what they need to do and there are any number of situations where a president might need to "enter the pitch-black forest of war" without waiting for a reluctant Congress.

Fourth, President Bush has spoken of the importance of preventing Iran from having "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Does McCain think it is feasible and imperative to prevent, or destroy, such "knowledge"?

I'm going to guess that McCain's answer to this question is that, yes, we should prevent Iran from gaining or keeping the knowledge to make nuclear bombs. This is very much a no-brainer, and I expect that Will knows that. The unspoken question is what McCain is willing to do to relieve Iran of the knowledge it already possesses. Will should see the answer to his second question.

The fifth question is a bit more complicated. It involves the status of forces agreement currently being worked out between the Bush Administration and Iraq's government. Various Lefty constitutional scholars and Congress are claiming that such an agreement is subject to senatorial or congressional authorization. President Bush disagrees, and relies on the executive's inherent constitutional authority over foreign policy and the wide latitude courts have given to executive agreements.

On this one question, I am unsure of what a President McCain would do. On the one hand, presidents are loathe to give up without a fight any authority of the office itself. Status of force agreements and many types of executive agreements have been kept out of the senate or Congress (for "congressional-executive agreements"). On the other hand, McCain has been in Congress for as long as I've been alive. It's not unbelievable to expect that his loyalties are with Congress as an institution, regardless of who is currently running the show. It's also possible that his beliefs about executive power have been shaped by his long years in that body.

I'm not sure what George Will's was after on Sunday, but he's been a frequent critic of President Bush, often challenging the president to make policy changes. He seems poised to take the same tactic with McCain.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 04:07 AM

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