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Clipping the Hawk Wings

By Pradeep Niroula, Crimson Staff Writer

As the confetti—and balloons—settled on the stages of the Democratic and Republican charades, our majestic democracy presented us with two leaders—both of whom have raised flags of belligerence. Hillary Clinton’s history in Congress and in the Obama administration might as well be prefaced with “H is for Hawk,” while Trump has made open promises to authorize “something beyond waterboarding.”

People on both side of our wisely-carved political spectrum are wary of the foreign policy consequences of either a Clinton or Trump presidency. It seems that things would be a heck of a lot more reassuring if the presidency held no consequential power at all. A titular presidency, that would compare in powerlessness and extravagance with the British monarch, would possibly quench Clinton’s thirst of the iron throne, and it would most certainly bestow enough publicity on Trump to compensate for his other insecurities. The hawks would be hearty and the wars could be prevented.

Such a powerless presidency is a far cry from where we stand now, but a discussion on reining the executive power of the American president does merit some attention.

The American presidency has been gradually becoming more unilateral in waging wars. The second World War, the Cold War and the more recent War on Terrorism have greatly empowered the American president to commit the nation to war-path without any authorization from Congress.

President Harry Truman’s didnt think that he needed the authorization of Congress to commit American troops to war in Korea. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush didn’t wait for congressional approval to commit troops in the Gulf Kuwait. Similarly, President Bill Clinton chose not to listen to Congress regarding the intervention in Kosovo. In recent years, President Obama felt that he did not need any authorization from Congress in either the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 or our action in Syria.

Furthermore, Obama himself was found to be making final decisions on unilaterally authorized drone strikes and targeted killings—all under the shadow of the war on terrorism.

The simple truth is that the American presidency has accumulated an enormous amount of raw firepower in it. The ability to authorize drone strikes, launch nuclear missiles, or commit troops is all vested in the presidency, and over the years, the checks on this power by Congress have eroded and been loosened. In his speech on drone policy, President Obama himself acknowledged the potential executive misuse of targeted killings and has called for a greater congressional oversight on drone operations.

It has long been taken for granted that the American president would be morally prudent. Given the choices we have, and Donald Trump in particular, that conventional wisdom has to be let go. At some point in summer, Donald J. Trump commandeered the vote of a plurality of the American population. If the election were held that day, Trump could have possibly won. And the presidency, with all its power, would belong to him to fool around.

It has, therefore, become imperative that we revisit the question: how do we prevent or at least minimize the damage done by a potentially reckless, belligerent, and hawkish president?

Democracy has never been free from the threat of demagogues. And this is certainly not the first time—nor the last—that demagogues have held power or have come close to holding it. However, the salient feature of democratic systems is that they prevent unconstitutional usage of power, or dramatic deviations from acceptable policy norms. A robust democracy acknowledges the demagogic threat to the democracy and tries to limit, with constitutional balances and checks, the damage a demagogue could possibly do.

Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Men and women—even the best—are vulnerable to impulses, to biases, to greed and to recklessness. Robust constitutional checks and balances are required to make democratic systems impervious to someone like Donald J. Trump. The reason the prospect of a Trump presidency is frightening is the kind of potentially devastating things he could do with the power vested in the current executive.

The task at hand is to reassert the weakened checks to the power of presidency. A democratic society cannot put its trust in the good faith and moral prudence of its leaders and elected representatives. Democratic systems have to be designed to be impervious from the threats of belligerent demagogues. Though we can never get rid of demagoguery, we can, however, reinforce our state structure to restrain such a demagogue from coming to power or to minimize the potential damage such a demagogue could breed—the first step of which will be to rethink the amount of power vested in the commander-in-chief. As it stands now, I don’t think anyone should have that amount of power. Not Trump, not even Clinton.


Pradeep Niroula 18, is a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.

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