18 Sep Jack Goldsmith’s The Terror Presidency
What can I say, this is a terrific book. The Terror Presidency artfully weaves a personal narrative with some serious historical perspectives; it succeeds at being thoughtful, modest, and human; and the result is pretty compelling. The book is something of a perfect storm as a critique of the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 policies. Unlike run-of-the-mill tell-alls, Goldsmith is not motivated by grudges; if anything, he is too kind in his assessments of the central players in this disaster of presidency. Nor does he take a sledgehammer to the policies themselves; the assessment is (contrary to some press descriptions) a nuanced one. Nor, finally, can anyone go after him for cashing in on his public service and sensationalizing the events of his nine months at OLC, since (as reported in Jeff Rosen’s profile in the NY Times) he’s quite shrewdly giving the royalties to charity (with the book hovering in the top 100 at Amazon, those should be some happy charities). The timing is also impeccable, with the Bush crowd dazed and on the ropes. If this had been published even just a year ago I imagine there would have been some sort of counterattack by Administration surrogates, but I don’t see any evidence of that, at least not anything visible.
This book will also have staying power. It doesn’t neatly fit into a genre box. The natural comparison would be to Arthur M. Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency, off of which Goldsmith plays with his title. But the Schlesinger book is more detached and more self-consciously magisterial. The Terror Presidency very much puts contemporary events into historical perspective, but it wears its learning lightly, and doesn’t aspire to comprehensiveness. The closest analogue might be Abe Chayes’s The Cuban Missile Crisis, another slim volume by another legal academic who accidentally found himself at the center of a national security crisis. (Note to Google Books: put this one in the scanner queue.) This is meant as a high compliment. As does Chayes’s book, the Goldsmith account brings to life the role of the law outside the courts and inside the executive branch in the way that more scholarly work can’t. As such it will make an excellent teaching tool. I’ll be assigning it in my foreign relations law course.
On the substance, there are two major strands here. There’s the one that the mainstream media has predictably picked up on: how the failure of the Administration to consult more widely, both with Congress and the public, has unnecessarily undermined the its anti-terror policies. The book nicely draws the comparison to Roosevelt and the lead-up to WWII, how through skillful bipartisanship (bringing such prominent Republicans as Henry Stimson into his cabinet) and some aggressive but bounded lawyering (including Jackson’s notorious opinion on the destroyers deal) Roosevelt was able to ramp up US involvement notwithstanding serious legal and political obstacles.
The contrast to the Bush approach would be apparent even to the casual observer (even if there were a Democrat of Stimson’s stature, for example, there’s no chance that Bush would reach out to that person), but Goldsmith persuasively fleshes it out, both with unfamiliar details of the Roosevelt strategy and with the inside account of this Administration’s decision making predicates (the portrait of David Addington is particularly devastating – who’s left to defend him? – and Gonzales comes across as an affable lightweight). Goldsmith tries to suggest the Bush Presidency’s resurrection in the history books, highlighting how presidential reputations rise and fall like stocks on Wall Street. That seems pretty unlikely, based on his own assessment. (The book’s biggest whooper by far: “Future historians may come to view President Bush as we now view Lincoln and Roosevelt.”)
The other strand, highlighted by those who have actually read the book and those more sympathetic to Administration policy (examples here and here), laments the legalization of national security policymaking on the ground. On this theme I’m more skeptical, both in terms of the historical contrasts (again to the Roosevelt era) and in terms of how much of an obstacle it really is to an effective anti-terror strategy. But I’ll save those thoughts for a subsequent post.