Now that a decade has passed since the extraordinary events of the summer of 2007, it's possible to look back on that great national crisis with the benefit of some historical perspective.
Everyone is familiar with the broad outlines of the crisis, which began when President Bush ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch military operations against Iran. The series of events that unfolded over the next few days has been chronicled, analyzed and debated endlessly in the years since.
Three of the central questions in this debate are still unresolved, and will no doubt remain so. First, did the Joint Chiefs act within the law when they refused to follow the president's orders, and instead instructed the Pentagon's lawyers to request an emergency hearing before the Supreme Court?
Second, did the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution correctly when, by a 5-4 vote, it ruled that the president had exceeded his constitutional authority by, in effect, declaring war against Iran without congressional authorization?
Third, did the subsequent refusal of the Bush administration to obey this ruling provide sufficient legal grounds for the impeachment and conviction of President Bush and Vice President Cheney?
Defenders of the administration have always characterized these events as being, as Sen. Joseph Lieberman put it at the time (Lieberman was one of only nine senators who voted to acquit President Bush), "nothing less than a military, judicial and legislative coup."
And even the staunchest advocates of their actions must admit there was something profoundly disturbing about the sight of the country's highest military officers taking it upon themselves to decide that the only way to save the republic was to disobey direct orders from the president.
Still, to understand the events of that extraordinary time, it's necessary to appreciate the almost cultlike atmosphere of power worship and war hysteria that, by the spring of 2007, had taken hold of both the Bush administration and many leading intellectuals.
A good illustration of this atmosphere is found in an article published May 2 in The Wall Street Journal by a distinguished academic, Harvey Mansfield. A professor of government at Harvard, Mansfield argued that, in "stormy times," America needed a "strong executive," and that in such times presidents were not bound by the law. Rather, like Machiavelli's prince, a president should do whatever was necessary to preserve his own power and protect the people, toward whom he should be "cruel and merciful in correct contrast and proportion."
This suggestion that, in certain circumstances, presidents should govern in the manner of benevolent dictators, unrestrained by such inconveniences as the rule of law, was not made by an obviously unhinged person on some obscure Web site, but by an eminently respectable intellectual, in the pages of the leading "conservative" newspaper of the day. (By the end of the Bush presidency the word "conservative" had acquired the precise opposite of its traditional definition.)
Ironically, in that very same week in May of 2007, another prominent public intellectual, Thomas Sowell, mused in another leading "conservative" publication that he couldn't "help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup."
Little did Sowell suspect how soon that day would arrive.
The generals who refused to follow the president's orders in the summer of 2007 did so on the grounds that they had not taken oaths of loyalty to their commander-in- chief, but to the Constitution. The day on which the deep patriotism of our soldiers helped rescue the republic remains both one of the saddest and most glorious in American history.
It was, in many ways, their finest hour.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Rocky Mountain News