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Posted July 16, 2006
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Photograph from Reuters/Corbis

The neoimperial presidency? Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia, in Moscow in 2001.

The Time of the Presidents

Around the world, elected executives are threatening democracy. The office of the presidency itself may be to blame.    By Gary Rosen

Were he still around, what would Peter the Great make of the Group of 8 summit meeting being held this weekend in his imperial capital? Would he find any kindred autocratic spirits among the leaders of the industrialized world as they confer in the grand palaces of St. Petersburg? For critics of George W. Bush and his expansive view of presidential power, the question answers itself, and Jacques Chirac certainly wins points for hauteur. But compared to other presidents making headlines lately (leaders chosen, more or less, by their own people) Bush and Chirac have been models of executive self-restraint.

Vladimir Putin, whose role as host of the G-8 summit meeting has been controversial in itself, continues to centralize control and quash dissent in Russia. Outside the G-8, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela rails against American hegemony while turning the legislature and courts into appendages of his rule. Then there is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an Islamist demagogue whose nuclear ambitions and apocalyptic rhetoric have traumatized the West and given newfound power to his lay office. Around the world, the imperial presidency appears to be alive and well.

That all three countries have produced such authoritarian, even proto-dictatorial presidents under the forms of democracy may not seem surprising. Their histories include Soviet commissars, caudillos on horseback, shahs perched atop the Peacock Throne. Their audacity has also been fed, of course, by large oil and gas reserves.

But part of the problem may be intrinsic to the office of president itself. As a “democratic wave” has swept the globe in recent decades, increasing the number of electoral democracies from 66 in 1987 to 122 in 2005, it has exposed as never before the difficulty of getting executive power right. Government “by the people” is a stirring slogan, but it doesn’t tell you how government should perform its essential tasks. Who can be trusted with the necessary authority?

In the early 1990’s, the political scientist Juan Linz of Yale, a leading scholar on democratization, warned of the “perils of presidentialism.” Presidents, he argued, made for a “winner take all” politics and tended to see themselves in dangerously “plebiscitarian” terms as the living embodiment of the nation’s will and deepest interests. Linz’s special concern was Latin America, which (like the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and much of Africa and Central Asia) has followed the model set by the United States. To his mind, Europe’s more accountable prime ministers — and their parliamentary counterparts in countries like Canada, Japan and Australia — represented a safer institutional alternative. To Americans, the office of president seems like part of the natural order, the obvious third element in any constitutional regime. But presidentialism is an invention, our invention. It was the American founders’ answer to the Old World’s kings and czars. Writing in defense of the Constitution in 1788, Alexander Hamilton insisted that the American executive would be energetic and independent enough to give force to the law and yet still responsible to the people: George III would not be succeeded by His Royal Highness George Washington. But Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry would have none of it. “Away with your president!” he thundered. “We shall have a king: the army will salute him monarch.”

Henry turned out to be wrong, thankfully, but he did put his finger on the aspect of presidential authority that still causes the most political grief. The American president, after all, is not just an executive, the ostensible servant of Congress and its laws; he is also the commander in chief, burdened with protecting the country against enemies near and far. In describing Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the philosopher John Locke, a key influence on the American founders, saw that these were in fact two very different jobs. The power of national defense, he wrote, “is much less capable to be directed by antecedent, standing, positive laws, than [is] the executive; and so must necessarily be left to the prudence and wisdom of those whose hands it is in.” In dealing with the outside world, in short, even the most law-abiding king required freedom of action.

For modern presidents, in the United States and elsewhere, the monarchical temptation has indeed loomed largest in the conduct of foreign policy. The rise of Putin, Chávez and Ahmadinejad can be traced in large part to their readiness to confront perceived international threats, from Chechen jihadism to globalization and United Nations nuclear monitors. All three presidential bad boys have found an especially useful foil in the Bush administration, with its eager resort to American might. A strong American president, it seems, creates strong counterpresidents. Bidding defiance to Uncle Sam, they have played to their own peoples’ pride and fear, all the while wrapping themselves in folds of regal purple.

Unfortunately, defenders of the broad wartime prerogatives assumed by President Bush since 9/11 have seen fit to advance their own cases for monarchical principles. In his recent book, “The Powers of War and Peace,” John Yoo, an architect of the administration’s views while in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, points to the latitude once enjoyed by the British crown as the founders’ model for presidential authority abroad. For Yoo, the lesson is clear: the courts and Congress have only the narrowest role to play and should leave war to the constitutional office designed to wage it.

As a historical matter, this view is extremely dubious. Not even Hamilton, the most robust advocate of presidential power in the founding generation, would have gone so far. More important, such claims needlessly amplify the Bush administration’s bark when its actual bite has not been as ferocious. On the most crucial question of shared constitutional responsibility — the decision to send American troops to war — President Bush has sought and received Congressional approval. The administration has also yielded, if begrudgingly, to demands for more accountability in intelligence, surveillance, interrogation and detention, with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld at the top of the list. In the United States today, there are simply too many institutional and cultural counterweights to the emergence of a truly “imperial presidency,” just as there were more than three decades ago when Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. assigned that label to another Republican White House.

Where that leaves the rest of the world is another question. Though exceptions exist, the record of presidentialism in regions new to democracy — and to democratic pluralism — is not a happy one. It is a model that paved the way for strongmen like Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the oil-rich thugs who now rule Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Would these countries have produced a more moderate politics under a parliamentary system, with its flexibility and power-sharing? Perhaps. That has certainly been the case for the new democracies of Eastern Europe, but they, of course, had a cultural and historical head start.

Looking out over the G-8 summit meeting, the ghost of Peter the Great would see executive leadership in many forms — Putin’s brutal efficiency, Chirac’s insufferable majesty, Blair’s eloquence, Bush’s single-mindedness. But it would all be familiar to him. Americans may have been the first to recognize the advantage of retaining at least a kernel of monarchy’s strength and dispatch, but we hardly possess a monopoly. The whole world, it seems, still needs some remnant of kingship.

Gary Rosen is the managing editor of Commentary and the editor of “The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, July 16, 2006., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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