14 January 2007

Beware the Ides of March (and it's only January)

The second season of HBO's Rome begins tonight. I'm a fan of this lavish, epic, historical soap opera. At the end of last season, Gaius Julius Caesar fell (as did Niobe Vorenus), as much the victim of his own imperial hubris as of the treachery of the women beside him.

The leader of the modern equivalent of the Imperial Roman Empire is poised to fall at the end of next year - election season - if not felled by Congress any sooner (which will likely not happen). But the hubris and imperial aspirations of those in the administration of Bush-the-younger are no less troublesome than those of the archetypal tyrant of history. According to Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate,
Guantanamo stays open for the same reason Padilla stays on trial. Having claimed the right to label enemy combatants and detain them indefinitely without charges, the Bush administration is unable to retreat from that position without ceding ground. In some sense, the president is now as much a prisoner of Guantanamo as the detainees. And having gone nose-to-nose with the Congress over his authority to craft stripped-down courts for these "enemies," courts guaranteed to produce guilty verdicts, Bush cannot just call off the trials.

The endgame in the war on terror isn't holding the line against terrorists. It's holding the line on hard-fought claims to absolutely limitless presidential authority.

Enter these signing statements. The most recent of the all-but-meaningless postscripts Bush tacks onto legislation gives him the power to "authorize a search of mail in an emergency" to ''protect human life and safety" and "for foreign intelligence collection." There is some debate about whether the president has that power already, but it misses the point. The purpose of these signing statements is simply to plant a flag on the moon—one more way for the president to stake out the furthest corners in his field of constitutional dreams.
Of course comparing GWB to GJC is a little unfair: Caesar is portrayed as caring more for the opinions of the average person than pandering to the nobility.

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