The Constitution of the United States of America is sheer genius captured on parchment. The delicate balance of authority -- the system of checks and balances and separation of powers -- has served as the foundation for our liberties, providing for the flexibility needed to accommodate two centuries of change and growth while also inspiring people around the world to strive for liberty.
The Constitution is designed, as Chief Justice John Marshall observed, "to endure for ages to come." But our national charter is being threatened as never before by reckless disregard for its wisdom.
Especially since Sept. 11, 2001, I have viewed with increasing alarm the erosion of the people's liberties at the hand of an overreaching executive and a less than vigilant Congress. This White House wraps itself in the garb of patriotism while running roughshod over the very ideals for which the first American patriots sacrificed. A concentrated, manipulative and ruthless grasp for power by an arrogant executive which eschews the need to answer questions, seek counsel or build consensus is a dangerous phenomenon, especially in these troubled times.
This Bush administration preys on fear, twists the truth and relies on extreme secrecy in an unprecedented display of contempt for the American people.
Let President Bush speak for himself. "I'm the commander," he told journalist Bob Woodward for the book, Bush at War. "See, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
In this country, the people are sovereign. The first three words of the preamble to the Constitution are "We the people." The people are always owed an explanation by those who serve them. For any public servant to believe otherwise is arrogant in the extreme and can be costly at home and abroad.
Consider the cornerstone of Mr. Bush's foreign policy -- the doctrine of pre-emption, the first-strike war. This doctrine is unconstitutional. It cuts the people's representatives -- the Congress -- completely out of decisions to send Americans to fight and die.
Look to Iraq, the first testing ground for this radical doctrine. America is not safer because of Mr. Bush's war.
Instead, we have forged a cauldron of contempt for America, a dangerous brew that may have poisoned efforts at peace throughout the Middle East and, indeed, the world, while giving rise to generations of young people who now hate America for its aggression and for shameful debacles like the horrors at Abu Ghraib. We have squandered the goodwill of the world. Such has been the price of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption.
A weak Congress buckled in its vote to authorize force in Iraq. The country was misled by an administration that waved the bloody shirt of 9/11 then subtly shifted the blame to Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that there exists no demonstrable link between the two.
The White House propaganda machine convinced the country and Congress that it was unpatriotic to question the president; that it was damaging to our troops to question the war; and that it now serves no purpose to rehash the events that took us to war. But we must learn from an examination of the sad mistakes that have been made. Nearly 1,000 Americans have died in Iraq. No president must ever again be granted such license with our troops and our treasure.
Each generation of Americans has the responsibility to renew the framer's legacy, and to make this nation shine as a lasting beacon of hope for the world. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." We must reacquaint ourselves with the Constitution and forge new links with our history. Congress must reinvigorate its defense of the people's liberties. Amid the sound and fury of election-year politics, all of us must take a long, hard look at the kind of country we want to leave to our children.
Robert C. Byrd, the senior Democratic senator from West Virginia, is the author of Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency (W.W. Norton & Co.)
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