I'd like to use the occasion of Al Gore's op-ed in the NYT today to expand on something I said in my talk on Curbing the Imperial Presidency. In his book The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger argued that the Imperial Presidency derived from foreign policy:
The Imperial Presidency was essentially the creation of foreign policy. A combination of doctrines and emotions--belief in permanent and universal crisis, fear of communism, faith in the duty and the right of the United States to intervene swiftly in every part of the world--had brought about the unprecedented centralization of decisions over war and peace in the Presidency. With this there came an unprecedented exclusion of the rest of the executive branch, of Congress, of the press and of public opinion in general from these decisions.
We would only need to replace the word terrorism for communism to apply this paragraph today--to describe how the rationale of crisis and fear justified the dangerous consolidation of power under the Executive. At the close of my talk on the Imperial Presidency, I said,
Finally, we have to use the Administration’s botched propaganda against it. It is clear to most, now, that the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with an attempt to prevent the proliferation of WMD, a desire to spread democracy, or a fight against terrorism. We need to keep refuting those who want to claim this war is part of the war on terror. But we need to take that a step further and talk about the real reason the Administration did invade Iraq: to prop up America’s threatened hegemonic position using a grand strategy that is not only outdated and immoral, but guaranteed to be ineffective in an era of global warming and peak oil.
By that, I meant three things. First, we have to keep challenging the Administration's and the Press' claims that our main problem in Iraq is and was Al Qaeda, all the while pointing to ways that Iraq has made Al Qaeda worse. In other words--show that Bush and Cheney are failing in the war on terror. Nobody likes losers--but we're not making as much of the fact that Bush is a loser as we need to. And we're permitting Bush to appeal to the culture of crisis he has sown when it has no logical connection to the crisis.
Second, we need to point to the ways that BushCO has failed to accomplish its underlying objectives--shoring up US hegemony. We're in debt up to our eyeballs, the dollar is declining rapidly, and we're losing the battle for energy resources with China. Our continued presence in Iraq is only making this decline worse--and threatening to turn it, rather than terrorism, into a crisis. So in fact, we haven't even accomplished the real reasons we went to war.
But finally, we need to adopt a new grand strategy that will undercut the tendencies of authoritarianism that our current strategy supports. Central to this must be a response to global warming. As Gore describes the threat of global warming, it is no less urgent a crisis than communism was or terrorism is.
This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue, one that affects the survival of human civilization. It is not a question of left versus right; it is a question of right versus wrong. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours.
We — all of us — now face a universal threat. Though it is not from outside this world, it is nevertheless cosmic in scale.
But it is an urgent crisis that demands action that precisely undercuts the Imperial Presidency and its claims to power. First, because a response to global warming needs to be a response of all individuals.
But individual action will also have to shape and drive government action. Here Americans have a special responsibility. Throughout most of our short history, the United States and the American people have provided moral leadership for the world. Establishing the Bill of Rights, framing democracy in the Constitution, defeating fascism in World War II, toppling Communism and landing on the moon — all were the result of American leadership.
Once again, Americans must come together and direct our government to take on a global challenge. American leadership is a precondition for success.
Global warming requires the US to set aside its exceptionalism that has formed the rationale for so much violence.
There are some who will try to pervert this precedent and use xenophobia or nativist arguments to say that every country should be held to the same standard. But should countries with one-fifth our gross domestic product — countries that contributed almost nothing in the past to the creation of this crisis — really carry the same load as the United States? Are we so scared of this challenge that we cannot lead?
And finally (though Gore doesn't say this), any real response to global warming is going to depend on transparency, not secrecy. Gore is using language that calls us to make global warming our mission--a step that would by default requires us to subjugate our "mission" to combat terrorism to its appropriate position.
We should focus instead on the opportunities that are part of this challenge. Certainly, there will be new jobs and new profits as corporations move aggressively to capture the enormous economic opportunities offered by a clean energy future.
But there’s something even more precious to be gained if we do the right thing. The climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a generational mission; a compelling moral purpose; a shared cause; and the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.
I think he's right. The urgency is there, the need is real. And if we embrace the issue (we need to), then it can provide a new driving purpose to our flailing nation.