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The Power of Inspection and the Claim of Impeachment

David Bromwich

Last night's Democratic debate marked the first time a number of candidates have spoken sanely and frankly about the Cheney-Bush design for a world war. Tim Russert asked each candidate to "pledge" to prevent Iran from developing the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. A mindless and demagogic request, and an attempt to corral the Democratic party into the militarism which holds the Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) captive and cheering. Russert was out of line and someone should have told him so. Yet the responses were instructive. Hillary Clinton vowed to do all she could to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon; when that proved not ripe enough for her questioner, she made it clear she would not please him by upping the ante. What he was after was a pledge to initiate a war by bombing Iran.

Joe Biden explained to Russert that the Middle East holds perils more ominous than the possible attainment of a nuclear weapon by Iran some years from now. Biden did not mention Israel's 200 nuclear weapons, or its second-strike capacity from submarines. He did bring up Pakistan: another nuclear power, and one whose upheaval would have consequences the U.S. cannot possibly reckon. By his answer, Biden was contributing to the education of the public. They surely hadn't heard before a sober comparison of Pakistan with Iran, whether from Tim Russert or his colleagues at ABC or what remains of CBS.

The education continued with a fine response by John Edwards that addressed the Cheney-Bush pattern of saber-rattling against Iran. Edwards showed how the pair were following the same protocol that created a stupefied popular consensus against Iraq in 2003. He also used the word "neocon": a word that many of his listeners might have a broad idea of; more of them, probably, a dim and faint idea. The mere mention of this faction constitutes of a public service, now that they are running not only the president's foreign policy but the policy apparatus of four Republican candidacies (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Thompson). Next time, Edwards ought to give a name or two, and connect it with a policy. For the individuals he has in mind are as persistent and remorseless as they are destructive. Their previous field of exercise was Nicaragua.

Chris Dodd offered a vivid recollection of the disaster of Iran-Contra when he recalled his part in negotiating a diplomatic end to the artificially induced civil war in Nicaragua: a war that was begun in America's name but funded and commandeered in defiance of the law. If Dodd alludes to Nicaragua again, he might mention that the earlier war was fought by American proxies with the tactics of terrorism; that it was a war that ripped apart a society and by its end had killed 30,000; and that it was run from the department of state by the same reckless functionary, Elliott Abrams, who pulls the levers now on American policy in the Middle East. The next time you hear (Dodd could easily say) about an assassination that heats up civil strife in Lebanon with profit to no party in Lebanon, or the latest speculative charge against Iran by the White House, or reports of advanced armaments suddenly in use by Fatah militias, or an Israeli bombing of a supposed nuclear site in Syria, where no evidence is given and no radioactive residue appears--be forewarned that you are seeing the handiwork of Elliott Abrams. This is an administration that has everything to fear from the diffusion of facts. But the facts need to be recited slowly, and the history needs to be recounted with patience.

Dennis Kucinich spoke the word impeachment. Whatever the Democrats may do, it is an idea the party would be irresponsible not to consider. No one who has read the Constitution through the minds of the founders, and followed the history of the past seven years, can doubt that the vice president and the president have committed impeachable offenses. The violation of FISA and the development of a secret policy for circumventing the FISA court are only the clearest instances. The withdrawal of the U.S., in secret, from the Geneva conventions, embodies the same insolence and arrogation. The power of inspection by the Senate and the claim of impeachment have long been understood as the indispensable checks against abuse of power by an ambitious executive.

Against impeachment, there is this to be said, that the majority apparently lack the votes to make it succeed. Yet Nancy Pelosi showed a remarkable absence of political mind when, as the leader of a new majority in a critical time, facing a president out of control, she declared that impeachment was not an option. You don't reassure an opponent--especially an opponent who understands nothing but the language of force--that the one weapon he rightly fears has been taken out of your arsenal. Besides, there are powers of inspection short of impeachment, which the Democratic Congress has been inexplicably backward in using. Dick Cheney has never held a press conference, and has seldom been asked to answer a question. His chief of staff, David Addington, is unknown on Capitol Hill. Why have they never been called to testify? Say by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (for misconduct in the control of post-invasion Iraq)? Or the Senate Intelligence Committee (for the slanting of estimates on Iraq in 2002-03, on Iran in 2006, on Syria in 2007)? Or by the Judiciary Committee (for overturning in secret the constitutional ban on torture and the legal restrictions on domestic surveillance)? When one thinks of the public education on the war in Vietnam that was supplied by the Foreign Relations Committee under Senator William Fulbright, nothing except timidity and a failure of self-respect can explain the omission of such hearings today.

The preferred way in to a world war, as Alastair Crooke pointed out in a recent and disturbing article, may not be a direct attack on Iran, but a "back door" through any of the potential flash-points the vice president has been preparing in the region. It may come from Lebanon, or from the Kurds, or an alarm set off by Israel and the argument that we have to cover what Israel "had" to do. All fanatics are dangerous; and not all of them know this about themselves; but the fanatics of this administration and their propagandists, do indeed know it, and they have begun to turn "dangerous" into a term of praise. They truly believe the surest way to reform the Middle East is to revolutionize the entire region through the engineered collapse of several governments at once, or in close succession. A much larger war triggered by accident, and a mounting series of escalations, would also bury their responsibility in the confusion, chaos, and desolation that followed.

But to carry it off they need the American people to be their accomplices. And that is where the salutary shadow of impeachment may matter. Even if it remains a discussion only, the threat could remind the public, and give notice to TV presenters innocent of political knowledge, that there is an unpleasant smell, a suspicion probably worth exploring, about the familiar crooked path to the next war. There is something finally neither admirable nor laughable about the men who have done these things to our country.

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings ON EMPIRE, LIBERTY, AND REFORM and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of ON LIBERTY.

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