Is the American President a dictator?: UPDATED and EDITED

24 Jun

Gaddafi Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi greets US President Barack Obama at the G8 Summit in Italy in 2009.

Editor’s Note: This article was written over a year ago, but there some things in here that are factually incorrect, so I’m going in to fix them, and they have been deleted, changed or struck out. Also, this article covers a variety of topics, not just civil rights and civil liberties. The main sources I used were Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (you can read it online here), Arthur Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency, and Gore Vidal’s The American Presidency, so those have been eliminated from the citations as a result. Instead, only the citations that come from sources other than these have been kept. The section about national emergencies has also been shortened as well, as to reflect the reality. Also the picture that quickly summarizes the powers said ‘@ his disposal’ which I now feel is too limiting, so I changed it to ‘@ their disposal’ as to make it more inclusive. Please tell me if any of the links don’t work or what your thoughts are.

After the beatings of peaceful protesters by Chicago Police in #StopNATO demonstrations, many have questioned the American governmental system. Numerous people have said America is a police state, a place where the government intimidates and suppresses political opposition by using a secret police force (FBI) and other police. From this, one inquires more and finds that all the information put out about the U.S. governmental system by official outlets is flawed. Congressman Ron Paul said that the use of executive orders by President Obama gets close to a dictatorship (time of a dictator or absolute power or authority) and is against the Constitution but mentions no more. In ancient Rome, a magistrate with supreme authority, appointed in times of emergency was considered a dictator. This brings one to the question: Is the President a person with dictatorial powers or a constitutional dictator?

First off, the word “dictator” must be defined. Webster’s New World College Dictionary: Fourth Edition defines a dictator as “a ruler with absolute authority, esp. one who exercises it tyrannically,” “A person who orders others about domineeringly,” or “one whose pronouncements on some subject are meant to be taken as the final word.” In order to find out if the President is a dictator, one must start by looking at certain specifics in the Constitution. If he does not sign or veto a law within ten days it shall be law unless Congress adjourns. In addition, he has all the powers entitled as being the commander in chief of the armed forces, power to convene both houses of Congress on extraordinary occasions and power to pardon or reprieve any one unless that person is impeached. The power has never been used in American history by any President is the power in a “case of disagreement” between the two houses of Congress to adjourn both houses “to such time he shall think proper.” Likely this power could be abused by chief executive like when the eleven years of tyranny when King Charles I of England refused to call Parliament into session between 1629 and 1640 even though the President would seemingly not dismiss Congress for such a long time. See this reddit discussion about the topic as it relates to the Class War shutdown (government shutdown). (1)

The powers given to the President by the Constitution still doesn’t provide the full picture. One must start with the history of such powers in the United States. The story starts with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Howard Zinn writes in his book, A People’s History of the United States, that the amendments “seemed to make the new government the guardian of people’s liberties…designed to build popular backing for the new government…[created a] shakiness of anyone’s liberty  when [it was] entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.” As a result of this development, certain parts of the Constitution were enforced weaker than others, as shown by the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798 (part of the Alien and Sedition Acts) in John Adams’s Administration. The law, which lasted for two years, clearly violated the first Amendment by making it a crime to write any false, malicious or scandalous information or arousing popular hatred against the U.S. government but was upheld by the Supreme Court and all appellate judges at the time. In addition, the President gained even more power under the Alien Act, which allowed the him to deport an alien who was considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and the Alien Enemies Act (2) (still in force) which allows him in the event of declared war or invasion against the United States to “apprehend…restrain…secure…and remove….all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government” over 14 years old. This tells us, as Zinn notes, that “in the first years of the Constitution…some of the provisions…might be treated lightly [and] others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced.” Consequently, this leadership model led to an expansion of power by the next president.

Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was the start of a trend that gave more power to the executive outside the bounds of the Constitution. Napoleon Bonaparte was trying to conquer Europe and needed money. So, he offered to sell the stolen Spanish and now French-owned land to the United States for a bit more than $27 million dollars. Jefferson accepted the proposal gladly unilaterally, meaning he did so without Congressional authorization or with authority derived from the Constitution. Political writer Gore Vidal wrote in his book, The American Presidency, that this action “set an example for future presidents to act unilaterally” and disregard the Constitution. Four years later, the Insurrection Act of 1807 (3) was passed and gave the President additional powers while limiting them: he can only use the powers if a disturbance deprives people of any constitutional rights, privileges, or immunities, if a state violates the equal protection of the laws (added after the 14th amendment) and if the course of justice is impeded.  He gained the power to federalize the National Guard of a state to stop a state rebellion upon the request of the state legislature or governor. In addition, if certain circumstances defined the law makes it impossible to enforce national laws, he is allowed to federalize National Guard of any state and use American armed forces “to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion” and take necessary measures to “suppress…any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.” In the coming years, the powers to the President didn’t significantly increase. Still, the chief executive authorized two military actions in West Florida (1810) and Amelia Island off West Florida (1817) without permission from Congress.

More than fifteen years later, South Carolina was about to succeed from the United States due to debates about tariffs, Jackson threatened to invade the state with the American military if they do so and as a result, the state stepped away from that position. Jackson was able to declare this because he gained new power under the Force Bill of 1833 (4), which seems to expand the powers of the Insurrection Act, of which one provision is still in place, section one which allows the President to protect customs officers and prevent removal of untaxed vessels by using American armed forces. Around the same time, according to Gore Vidal, “Jackson broke 93 treaties with Indian tribes…[and] was ruthless—a figure for his successors to emulate” by forcing Indians to move West by going beyond the authority set out in the Indian Removal Act and against a Supreme Court ruling, Worcester v. Georgia in favor of Indians. Some Indian tribes (Choctaws and Chickasaws) agreed to move from their lands, while the U.S. Congress declared war on the Seminoles and the nonviolent resisters, the Cherokees were forcibly moved in the ‘Trail of Tears’ in 1834. To no surprise, Vidal was right and presidents thereafter followed this model. Chief executive John Tyler authorized the deployment to protect the newly created Republic of Texas in 1844 without congressional authorization. James Knox Polk, the next President annexed Texas with dubious legality and had a war with Mexico which he started when he ordered General Taylor to provoke a conflict by invading sovereign Mexican land. As a result, Mexicans attacked American soldiers and Polk falsely declared the Mexico had “shed American blood upon the American soil” to justify a case for war and as a result, almost the entire Southwest was given to the United States. A few years later, President Franklin Pierce declared with great enthusiasm a seemingly imperialist inaugural speech that “our attitude as a nation [is to] render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection…[They] should…be obtained…in a manner entirely consistent with the strictest observance of national faith…no act within the legitimate scope of my constitutional control will be tolerated.” (5). Sure enough, in his administration would use US forces twelve times including: three times in China, two times in Nicaragua and two times in Japan. Not until the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln did these powers expand again.

A so-called abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln just wanted to preserve the Union; he didn’t want to free the slaves. He found the Constitution allowed him to have the dictatorial powers. He levied troops without Congressional authorization, “shut down newspapers, suspended habeas corpus [and] defied the Supreme Court—all in the name of military necessity” according to Gore Vidal. One newspaper at the time, the Fayetteville Observer said: “it is criminal again…to speak ill of the President of the United States…the tyrant Lincoln has the citizens arrested without form of law, gives them no trial” (6) and doesn’t let them know why they were arrested. In an interview on the Real News Network, Vidal said (7) the implementation of martial law in today’s world could be based on the presidency of this temporary dictator. Lincoln declared martial law in 1861 in certain areas but gained more refined powers under the Lieber Code of 1863 (8), which stayed in place until Proclamations 153 and 157 were issued in 1866 by the next President (9) , Andrew Johnson. Even while the Lincoln used these dictatorial powers to justify his expanded wartime authority, he used them to emancipate the slaves. This open interpretation would be used later so the President could free themselves of the supposed “distressing paralysis in moments of emergency” and lack of a “supreme, ultimate head…which can decide…some decision…immediately” as future chief executive Woodrow Wilson put in his 1885 doctoral writing titled Congressional Government. The ideas of Presidents Lincoln, Pierce, Jefferson and inherent powers of the Constitution came together under the Presidency of William McKinley.

Four people: Captain Mahan, Brooks Adams, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt set out to create an international American empire. As a first step, they revived a power the President had for a long time, speaking the “liberal rhetoric” and drowning out resentment at a certain class through patriotism and national unity.  Still, military intervention was nothing new to the United States with “103 interventions in the affairs of other countries between 1798 and 1895” as pointed out by Howard Zinn. The four plotters had one main target: the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines which they acquired in a few months of war in 1898 to the favor of the business community. This first major international war was followed by the assassination of President McKinley by violent anarchist Leon Czolgosz who said before his execution by electric chair: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry I could not get to see my father.” As a result, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, the Vice-President, became America’s “first international emperor [who]…dominat[ed] the mass media [because] the press corps accompanied him constantly” according to Gore Vidal. At one point, he set up an arbitration commission to settle the United Workers (Anthracite Coal) Strike. He also had such power because of the Big-Stick policy supported by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. While seeming to come off friendly, the Corollary declared that “Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship…If a nation shows that it knows how to act… it need fear no interference from the United States…[otherwise] Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence…may…ultimately require intervention…in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States…in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to…exercise…an international police power” and that the United States would supposedly “interfere with them only in the last resort” (11). With this newfangled power, Teddy said the presidency was a “bully pulpit” from which he attacked the scandalous rich and trusts against his interests while working for big business that favored him. Also, he let the “Great White Fleet” sail around the world without congressional appropriations. After that act of power, he helped engineer a rebellion in the supposedly to free Panama from Columbia, but really so the United States could have rights to the Panama Canal which was allowed by the Hay-Banau Treaty. The Corollary also told Europeans to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, like the Monroe Doctrine, so it could be the American hemisphere.

Successive presidents continued this policy. In William Howard Taft’s presidency, “dollar diplomacy” was put in place, a policy that substituted economic influence for military force to protect U.S. investments in Latin America. This was changed in Woodrow Wilson’s administration, a policy of “watchful waiting” which supported democratic governments, kept Europe out of the hemisphere and instated pro-American “democracies” with military intervention in Latin America. Around the same time, the President gained new authorities under the “progressive” legislation passed which was “aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” The Clayton Antitrust Act that protected labor unions, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act which criminalized child labor, the Workingman’s Compensation Act which gave workers compensation and , the Federal Reserve Act created the Federal Reserve System to help the banks and to avoid a major economic crisis (the crisis was not avoided, the Federal Reserve could not stop the Great Depression). During his term of office, the first-ever Committee of “Public Information” was created to spread propaganda about the effort in World War I against the supposed menace in Europe and three laws were passed to control the populace: the Espionage Act, the Conscription Act and the Sedition Act. The Espionage Act criminalized all anti-war talk, meaning that if you discouraged enlistment or opposed the war, you would be arrested  and  noted that the “President in time of war or in case of national emergency may by proclamation designate any place…in which anything for the use of the Army or Navy is being prepared or constructed or stored as a prohibited place…[and] that he shall determine that information with respect thereto would be prejudicial to the national defence.”  In addition, the Conscription Act forced people into a draft, removing people’s free will to enter the armed forces, stripping more civil liberties. The Sedition Act made anyone who was considered ‘disloyal’ a criminal, a similar goal of the Espionage Act. Only one of these acts remained in place, the Espionage Act, which is used against those leaking information today. Still, one year before the United States entered the war militarily (we had entered economically in 1915), the President gained the power under the National Defense Act of 1916 to federalize the National Guard in wartime or in a “national emergency.” Thus created the idea the chief executive could declare such an “emergency” on a national level.

In the next two presidencies, for the most part the powers of the chief executive were not increased. Warden G. Harding, there was his cry of a return to “normalcy,”  an “America First” campaign bringing back patriotism, which was used to drown out class resentment and the president was now forced to  submit a budget to Congress every year. Calvin Coolidge reduced the amount of government regulation was reduced, the first “deregulation fever” (the second in the 1980s) and said tellingly: “the chief business of the American people is business.” This changed a bit under Herbert Hoover, who thought the presidency could be used to improve conditions of all in America through public and private cooperation. At first, Hoover took a less interventionist approach economically and in foreign affairs. But, as time wore on, the income, estate and corporate taxes were increased, and he took more aggressive measures to stop the Depression setting a precedent in the future. Then FDR, who Gore Vidal calls the “first American dictator,” came into power.

Not only was FDR elected four times, but he told the media how and when to photograph him and gained extraordinary new powers. Under the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, the President gained the authority under a national emergency to have complete control over the finances of the country and foreign exchanges. Then, under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the President gained the authority to regulate industries in America by allowing cartels and monopolies by such industries which would later be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, powers that would come back fifteen years down the road. More importantly, during FDR’s presidency, as Arthur Schlesinger put it in his book, The Imperialist Presidency: “extraordinary power flow[ed]…into the presidency to meet domestic problems [and]…enlarged presidential authority in foreign affairs” which created an “imperial presidency.” This was shown by the power Section 606 of the Communications Act of 1934 gave to the president. He gained the power to: make certain communications a national security priority and use armed forces to stop obstruction of communication whenever he thinks it is in the interest of the public; amend all rules and regulations put in place by the Federal Communications Commission if there is a threat of war, war, public peril, natural disaster, or national emergency.  FDR didn’t stop there: he went beyond his constitutional boundaries and tried to push a “court packing” scheme to change the makeup of the Supreme Court as he would later appoint eight of the nine Supreme Court justices. Only a few years later, the President openly defied the Neutrality Acts by signing the Destroyers for Bases Agreement which was a precursor of the Land-Lease deals. The same year, he signed the Smith Act into law, which made it a crime for anyone to “advocate the overthrow of government by force or violence, or join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything with such ideas” which led to prosecution of Socialist Workers Party. He continued this unilateralism, in early 1941, by “waged his own presidential war against Germany, providing England with ships and arms” without a congressional declaration of war. After the war began, he gained even more powers. He signed Executive Order 9066 which gave the army the power to arrest all Japanese-Americans living in the West Coast “without warrants…indictments or hearings” as Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States. As government and big business united due to the war benefiting the wealthy elite partly due to fact FDR has become an imperial emperor who created the current American superpower-empire. (10)

After FDR died from polio, it changed. Harry S. Truman after some deliberation decided to drop an atomic bomb on Japan (and another) to destroy the morale of the country. As the first act of the “cold diplomatic war” against the USSR, suggested by P.M.S. Blackett’s book Fear, War, and the Bomb, the President had immense power at his disposal. This would later morph into the right of the President to provide the codes for nuclear retaliation through the so-called football if a nuclear attack occurs. More importantly, Truman and his administration created communist hysteria to justify an increased military budget, a defense stimulus of the economy and other repressive actions abroad and at home against supposed “enemies.” He used the basic presidential power to convince the public of the communist threat later described by Richard Neustadt as “the power to persuade.” In 1947, the Truman Doctrine, which officially stated America was fighting communism, hid the real goal: protecting the oil in the Mideast. In order to accomplish this goal, the national security state was formed.  The National Security Act of 1947 (11) began such a state with the chief executive presides over meetings of the newly-created National Security Council and “direct[ing] the policies and functions of the departments and agencies of the Government relating to the national security.” Then, under National Security Directive No. 68 a number of measures were implemented: a “permanent cold war…full speed ahead on developing an atomic bomb…build up [of] conventional forces…a massive increase in taxes…income taxes as high as 90%…a strong alliance system of friendly nations, directed by the US.” The invasion of South Korea by North Korea prompted the United States to supposedly intervene in a “United Nations police action.”

Truman didn’t ask for a congressional declaration of war, he said he didn’t need it because he was “repel[ling] an armed attack” and was helping  “uphold the rule of law.” The U.S. army, quickly numbering over 300,000 went beyond the confines of the U.N. resolution by advancing up to the Yalu River, provoking China to join in the war. After this, the Americans were pushed southward and the war stayed stalemated into 1953, over 36,600 American servicemembers had died in an unconstitutional and illegal war. During the war’s first year, the President brought his extraordinary international power onto a domestic scale by using military mobilization agencies, especially the National Security Resources Board (NSRB) to place price controls on wages, raw materials and prices. Then, a few months later he gained new powers under the Defense Production Act of 1950: the ability to make businesses sign contracts or complete orders in a manner that will support national defense. In addition, the President gained the power to allocate facilities, services and materials to help in national defense and in certain instances to control the civilian economy, take property, control the levers of production, put wage and price controls in place, control credit, settle labor disputes, and allocating certain raw materials to aid national defense. After the failure of the NSRB and other mobilization agencies, he declared a national emergency and created the Office of Defense Mobilization to help keep the economy under control.  Still, he rejected the anti-communist Internal Security Act of 1950, which forced the “registration of such organizations to be found “Communist-action” or “Communist-front,” something that was later declared unconstitutional. It also set up “detention centers (really concentration camps) for suspected subversives, who, when the President declared an “internal security emergency” would be held without trial” (14), a provision which was later repealed. Even so, he issued an executive order of dubious legality in 1952, which ordered the Secretary of Commerce to seize all the steel mills in the control so the production of steel could be continued. Later that year, in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the Supreme Court declared the president didn’t have the authority to seize the steel mills of the nation.

In November of that year, after Truman declined to run for President, Eisenhower (Ike) won the popular vote by an 11% margin over his Democratic competitor. While the American empire was becoming too expensive to keep intact and the Korean War was lost, he ignored this completely. The CIA, formed under Truman’s administration and had already tried to overthrow three governments (Albania, East Germany and Syria), it became even more powerful. The democratically-elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown and replaced by the Shah. In subsequent years, the governments of Guatemala, British Guiana, Laos, and Cambodia, were overthrown and replaced by American-friendly leaders. There were four failed coups in Costa Rica, Syria, Egypt and Indonesia in this time as well. All of this was in the name of anti-communism because he basically “was the military” in Gore Vidal’s words, meaning that he took a hard line position against communism. Still, he did something that the other presidents hadn’t: “he warned us against himself…He realized the harm that his regime was doing and the regime that had produced him…He warned us against the military-industrial complex” and the danger of America having a totally militarized economy. (12)

Even with this stark warning, John F. Kennedy (JFK) ignored it and thought the threat of communism was real. In order to counter it, JFK “immediately moved to increase military spending” and created “scares about Soviet military build-ups…[to justify] overwhelming nuclear superiority.” If that wasn’t enough, he gave go-ahead on the Bay of Pigs invasion, which completely failed and a unilateral quarantine to end the “Cuban Missile Crisis” ended peacefully. Schlesinger noted in his book, The Imperial Presidency, that while the missile crisis “combined…pressures of threat, secrecy,” it was in his opinion, “superbly handled” but had a horrible legacy: it created an “imperial conception of the Presidency.” This was enforced by the fact that JFK allowed the successful CIA-assisted assassinations of Gen. Rafael Trujillo, leader of Dominican Republic in 1961 and the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. He also allowed the attempted CIA assassinations of José Figueres, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Fidel and Raul Castro. At the same time, he began a war in Vietnam that in Gore Vidal’s opinion was of no national interest to the United States and was about presidential vanity. In fact, even if he had lived through his first term he would have continued the war in Vietnam.

The imperial specifications of the Presidency began with Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), who continued the destructive war in Vietnam, and followed the model of power in Truman’s presidency.  Even so, in Gore Vidal’s opinion, Johnson didn’t want imperialism, he just wanted to complete FDR’s vision in the New Deal, help the mass of people, overcome racial prejudice and rebuild the country. Even if this is true, President Johnson was given power under the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” (13) He also authorized the successful overthrow of the governments of Bolivia, Indonesia, Ghana, Greece and the beginning of the effort to depose the Marxist Salvador Allende’s government. Also, the botched assassinations of Francisco Caamaño and Charles de Gaulle, the President of France were authorized by him. Even so, he continued a disastrous war in Vietnam that not only continued Cold War mentality, but it destroyed his future career, as he chose not to run for President for a second term due to the conflict. LBJ was determined to not lose the war and this, among other factors allowed Richard Nixon to be elected.

Now days, Nixon is most known for the Watergate Scandal. But, he was the start of a generation of politicians who would do anything to get elected. Once in office, he “displayed monarchial yearnings…[and used] federal money…to adorn his California and Florida estates.” Since, the war was about having control of supplies like rice, rubber, teak, tin, spices and oil, Nixon didn’t want to leave. As a result, it took him until 1969 to start withdrawing and until 1971 to sign a law that repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. At the same time, he was gaining power by authorizing a secret war in Laos and the invasion of Cambodia in spring 1970. Supposedly, the two-month invasion in Cambodia was supposed to “ensure the continuing safe withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam” but it was really pure genocide and destruction. Even so, the President didn’t excessively use this power to make war without congressional authorization as some later on would. Nixon was bringing back imperial ruthlessness and unilateralism. He expanded the executive privilege, discredited the press (a power used later), determined what statutory programs would be abolished and headed toward a new constitutional balance of powers, all without consultation from any other branch of government. The presidency gained power in this “New American Revolution” as he called it which he thought was above the law (including the Constitution), leading to Watergate. As Schlesinger puts it in The Imperial Presidency, “the unwarranted and unprecedented expansion of presidential power…ran through the Nixon system…[and] Watergate did not stop the revolutionary presidency…[but] it reinvigorated the constitutional separation of powers.” An example of such expanded power, is when Nixon tried to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers after being convinced to do so by his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger which would be brought back many years later when whistleblowers would be prosecuted for telling the truth. To counter inflation, Nixon imposed wage and price controls similar powers granted by the Defense Production Act of 1950 by they were unpopular and stayed in effect for only about ten months. As his presidency was ending, the Supreme Court in US v. Nixon (1974) gave him and all future chief executives the power to have confidential communications, meaning the president did not have to reveal secrets deemed sensitive to national security.  Even by the time of his resignation, Nixon’s presidency had opened a can of worms and revealed “the imperial presidency” to Americans.

Gerald Ford, Nixon’s friend, pardoned him which was perceived as unpopular by the public. But, as the presidency began, his power was supposedly curtailed. In response to presidential gangsterism during in the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency the War Powers Resolution was passed. It said the President could not introduce armed forces into conflict or into a place that was about to be embroiled in conflict without consulting Congress first. Then, the chief executive was only allowed to use this power in three instances: when war was declared, when involvement was authorized by statute and when a national emergency “created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces” occurred. If one of the three instances was fulfilled, then the President could bring in armed forces into combat for up to 60 days and had to report to Congress on the status of the war, which would approve such intervention after sixty days. Congress would not approve an extension of military intervention use the President certified the “unavoidable military necessity” of keeping armed forces on the battlefield. Even with this restrictive language, Presidents violated it from the get-go (14). President Ford unilaterally introduced armed forces in two times in Vietnam, once in Cambodia and to retake a merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez in international waters. President Carter only authorized one such operation without congressional authorization: the failed attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran. Ronald Regan on the other hand intervened again and again in the countries of: Lebanon (withdrawal), Chad, Grenada, two missile attacks on Libyan installations, flagging Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Gulf and sending troops to Panama. George H.W. Bush continued the trend, sending military advisers and Special Forces teams to fight illicit drugs in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, repelling a coup attempt in the Philippines, invading of Panama capture General Noriega, increasing presence in Liberia, deploying troops to Saudi Arabia, deployment of American forces into northern Iraq, American participation in a no fly zone over Iraq (twice) and deployment of American troops to Somalia. Under the term of his predecessor, Clinton, this continued, with involvement of armed forces in: Iraq (four times), Bosnia (twenty one times), Somalia (twice), Macedonia (three times), Haiti (six times), Rwanda (twice), Liberia (three times), Central African Republic , Zaire/Congo (twice), Albania (four times), Gabon, Sierra Leone (twice), Cambodia, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kenya, Yugoslavia, Kosovo (four times), East Timor (three times) and Yemen. In George W. Bush, the imperial ruthless nature continued. Involvement of armed forces occurred in East Timor (three times), Kosovo (six times), Bosnia (eight times), all places needed for to fight the “global war on terrorism,” Macedonia, Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Liberia (twice), Djibouti (twice), forces on the high seas supposedly to stop terrorists, Haiti (two times), Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Eritrea, Lebanon and Cyprus, Horn of Africa. Under Obama, deployments in Kosovo, the Horn of Africa and on the high seas remain, along some others.

The expanded power taken by presidents was the epitome what the imperial presidency entailed. It was a new type of regime that consisted of “a combination of doctrines and emotions—belief in permanent and universal crisis, fear of communism…right of the United States to intervene swiftly in every part of the world…unprecedented centralization of decisions over war in peace…[with] exclusion of the executive branch…[from input of] Congress…the press and…public opinion in…decisions…[leading to a growth in] the imperial presidency at the expense of the constitutional order” (19). Under Carter’s administration the President gained the ability to allow warrantless surveillance for up to fifteen days after the beginning of a war and with the permission of the Attorney General, the electronic surveillance of foreign intelligence under the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1978. Also, if “there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party” the President can authorize warrantless surveillance of foreign intelligence. At the same time, he brought back the spin mister ability of the president, the ability to master what Howard Zinn called “liberal rhetoric,” something started in the time of Andrew Jackson. Still, he did not gain the most power for the presidency. Ronald Reagan allowed the presidency to be fully imperial, even farther than Nixon, even becoming a bit Roman.  He ruled like an emperor who brought back the threat of “communism” from the closet. The treasury was drained but there was a huge military buildup, the justification of failed programs like the “Star Wars” missile defense system, the “cost-benefit analysis” of environmental regulations which made the protection of health and safety second to cost for business continued from the Carter Administration. Businesses were allowed to voluntarily enforce OSHA regulations and environmental laws. Coupled with this was the weakening of social welfare programs, something that would make big business even more powerful in economic arena. At the same time, on the international arena, the Reagan regime conducted three successful overthrows of government in his term of office in the countries of Chad, Grenada and Fiji while having failed ones in South Yemen, Suriname and Libya. The real ruthlessness came out with the Iran-Contra affair. The leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua wanted to redistribute wealth and help the people, but Reagan worked to overthrow it with counterrevolutionary forces, also known as the contras. After the Boland Amendment banned U.S. funds from being used directly or indirectly to support such forces, it was blatantly violated. Third-party support from nations like Guatemala and Israel was found to get arms to the contras. In 1986, the story broke that America’s government was selling weapons to Iran in exchange for releasing hostages and that profits from such a sale would be given to the contras to buy weapons. Reagan, the Secretary of State, and Assistant Secretary of State lied about events connected to the scandal but none of the officials were impeached at all, they got off free. Howard Zinn noted that this affair was a perfect example of the “double line of defense of the American establishment…deny the truth [and] if exposed…investigate, but not too much,” a principle that would be used again in the future.

George H.W. Bush didn’t have a comparable scandal, but he did have an agenda. He wanted to “keep the empire going by constantly searching for very small enemies everywhere.” Such enemies included people like General Manuel Noriega who was tried in US Court which had no jurisdiction over his crimes since he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, however he was found guilty anyway. Unlike Reagan’s attack on Gaddafi, he began a bigger war. He started a war in the Persian Gulf which had congressional authorization but was not a declared war (Congress hasn’t declared war since WWII). While Saddam was not defeated, the oil was secured the empire could keep going. To make sure that happened, the Pentagon exercised almost total control of the American press so that any antiwar views were not heard. This made corporate media almost seem like it was state-run something that would come about later on. At the same time, as Chalmers Johnson notes in his book, Blowback, one major negative consequence of “the stationing of American troops in…Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf War” was that it began Osama Bin Laden’s anti-American jihad since he saw such an action a “violation of his religious beliefs.” There are many more powers the President has at his disposal that were created by later Presidents.

Under Bill Clinton, his imperial powers broadened. This is despite what Gore Vidal says: that Clinton wanted to make the “president of the United States…a man of power who can rev up the economy and…do things…for the people at large.” The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (15) was the first law to give the president warlike powers to combat “terrorism.” In the law, Congress recommended and seemed content with the president having the power to “use all necessary means, including covert action and military force, to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy international infrastructure used by international terrorists, including overseas terrorist training facilities and safe havens…[and]undertake efforts to increase the international isolation of state sponsors of international terrorism.” Similar words would come back under the auspices of a “war on terror” in George W. Bush’s term of office. Also, under the bill the President has the power under the law to prohibit assistance, lethal military aid, and military equipment to countries that aid terrorist states and those that do not cooperate “fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.” All of these prohibitions may be waived if the transaction is deemed to be a national interest to the United States government.  Two years later, under National Security Directive 63, the president gained the ability to help the federal government “take all necessary measuresto swiftly eliminate any significant vulnerability to both physical and cyber attacks on our critical infrastructures, including especially our cyber systems.” (16)

Whatever the added powers under Clinton, George W. Bush extended them tenfold. Under his presidency, the President can now apply the state secrets privilege and issue signing statements to say the President won’t enforce certain parts of legislation (no basis in the Constitution). Also, he can issue executive orders, something that’s has been issued since 1789 but most undocumented until the early 1900s and ruled on in numerous Supreme Court cases (Youngstown, Kormatsu v. United States, Schechter Corp. v. United States, Cole v. Young, Ex Parte Merryman). Kenneth Mayer, in his book, With the Stroke of a Pen comments that “executive orders [are]…a form of  “presidential legislation” or “executive lawmaking”…[and] for over a century the Supreme Court has held that executive orders, when based upon legitimate constitutional or statutory grants of power to the president, are equivalent to laws…[if they] lack…a constitutional or statutory foundation [they] are not valid…[and] when an executive order conflicts with a statute…the statute takes precedence.” So, executive orders don’t give all the power, but the give substantial power to the President. The USA Patriot Act passed in haste in 2001 gives almost dictatorial powers to parts of the government and definitely extends the power of the chief executive. Under the law, the president was given more authority to stop, investigate or control all financial transactions in American jurisdiction and the power to impound assets of any “foreign person, foreign organization, or foreign country” who he said “planned, authorized, aided, or engaged in such hostilities or attacks against the United States.” Also, if such actions are based on classified information, it submitted outside the presence of the one accused or his lawyer. Also under this law, the chief executive was given the power to create a national strategy to counter financial crimes like money laundering and instruct American directors of financial institutions keep financial aid or loans going to countries that have helped the United States fight the “Global War on Terror.”

As part of the anti-terror laws, the president was granted more authority. The 2001 Authorization of Military Force (Against Terrorists) bill, allows the president to“use all necessary and appropriate force” against the people who he determines planned, authorized and caused 9/11, and those who harbored such perpetrators (17) Also it allows him to take any action to stop future “acts of international terrorism” against America by such perpetrators. Chris Hedges in his book, Empire of Illusion,says that these powers include declaring “American citizens living inside the United States to be enemy combatants and order them stripped of constitutional rights.” With the broadness of the bill, and the use of it since its creation, his statement seems just about right. The same year, President Bush declared he had the authority to enter war under this law and bring troops into Afghanistan even though the bill did not even mention the country of Afghanistan and justified the warrantless surveillance of the National Security Agency (NSA). The next year, another law, the Authorization of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, which authorized a war in Iraq, asserted that the 2001 law was constitutional and expanded it by saying the president could deter and “prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” All of these measures were because of the hostile and angry rhetoric against terrorists that was spread through the jingoistic television networks like CNN, FOX News and even the New York Times. The criticizing of such measures was almost impossible with the wave of patriotism in the country.  In 2006, the President once again gained the ability to create military commissions, after basing the idea on AUMF, which was reinforced by part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, the Military Commissions Act of 2009 ,which said: “The President is authorized to establish military commissions…[the] President may prescribe, adjudge any punishment not forbidden…including the penalty of death when specifically authorized [and approved personally by the President]… the President may commute, remit, or suspend the sentence, or any part thereof, as he sees fit.”

Such measures were not all the president could now use. Out from the depths, a 1974 law, the National Emergencies Act, which had been used seldom by Presidents, came back under the Bush Presidency. Today, numerous different national emergencies are in effect including one that blocks Iranian government property, another which prohibits transactions with Iran, one that blocks Sudanese government property and prohibits transactions with Sudan and the declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks. As the CRS 2005 report put it, “at least one newspaper erroneously reported that the September 14, 2001…[that the] declaration of a national emergency by President George W. Bush…activated some 500 dormant legal provisions, including those allowing him to impose censorship and martial law.” In accordance with the requirements of the National Emergencies Act, the President’s declaration actually activated nine selective provisions of statutory law…pertaining to military and Coast Guard personnel” (18).

Under the Obama Administration, it is evident that the powers of the President have expanded. This is in the wake of the extension of the surveillance state which was partially revealed by the Washington Post in their articles about Top Secret America and a book by the authors of the investigation. Powers have been spread out amongst the state overall, but still a significant amount of powers have gone to the President. In June 2011, Judge Katherine B. Forrest declared Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act  of 2012 (19) violated part of the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment due process clause because it could be applied to U.S. citizens due to vague language, blocking its enforcement against anyone. Still, some thought that section 1021 (e) exempted U.S. citizens (“Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States,”) but forgot that the section never says U.S. citizens can’t be detained indefinitely. Even though this provision was invalided, under the bill, the President still retained wide power. Any person who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks” could be detained by the President indefinitely under the other parts of Section 1021. In the bill, the President was given the power under Section 1032 to issue “classified or unclassified national security planning guidance…[including] a prioritized list of specified geographic areas that the President determines are necessary to address and an explicit discussion,” and power under section 1225 to mitigate the threat of man-portable  air-defense systems in Libya to U.S. citizens and citizens of U.S. allies. Also under the law, he has the power to “block and prohibit all transactions in all property and interests in property of an Iranian financial institution if such property and interests in property are in the United States, come within the United States, or are or come within the possession or control of a United States person.” In addition, he has the power to implement all other sanctions related to Iran including petroleum and petroleum products and conduct “multilateral diplomacy” to basically isolate the country of Iran economically. However, there is an exemption for the “sale of food, medicine, or medical devices” to the country or if a foreign financial institution that has reduced the amount of oil purchases it makes from Iran and there are waivers the President can issue to such sanctions.. Interestingly, Section 954 of the law allows the President to order the Department of Defense to “conduct offensive operations in cyberspace to defend our Nation, Allies and interests” supposedly subject to the laws of war and the never-followed War Powers Resolution.

Attorney General Eric Holder says (20) that the government can use lethal force to defend itself, the president can continue to use all necessary and appropriate force against “al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” even more startling he says the Constitution gives the president the power to protect the nation from “any imminent threat of violent attack,” and says the President may order drone strikes without any due process anywhere around the world against anyone, including a U.S. citizen. A since-pulled editorial of the Sun published on June 8th, 2012, titled The Secret Wars, notes says that “the drone attacks…have long raised questions about the president’s authority to order strikes against suspected terrorists…who have never been charged with a crime…When the President declares a militant an “enemy combatant” and puts his name on a CIA “kill-or-capture” list, he is essentially acting as judge, jury and executioner…the decision is never open to public scrutiny…we just have to take it on faith that the president made the right decision.” The editorial also notes another power of the president recently revealed: “The secret cyber-attacks approved by the President…raise …questions about the president’s power to wage war without congressional authorization or oversight…the public never knew it was happening.” Interestingly, they note: “the leaks of classified information…may be vexing to members of Congress, but without them, we could not begin to hold our elected officials accountable for the damage — and violence — they do in our name.” While the leaks of classified information are an issue, the real boon is the revealing of the critique of the president’s powers.

I recently found that more powers are allocated to the President! I found that if “at the end of any fiscal year there is in effect a war or national emergency, the President may waive any statutory end strength with respect to that fiscal year. (21) Also I found that “in time of war…the President may suspend the operation of any provision of law relating to the promotion, involuntary retirement, or separation of commissioned officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard Reserve. So long as such war or national emergency continues, any such suspension may be extended by the President.” (22) If that isn’t enough, section 1068 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 says that the President “shall take such measures as he considers necessary to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy, if it…hinders the execution of the laws of that State, and of the United States…[and] opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.” (23) Then there is the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) which authorizes the “President  to regulate commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States which has a foreign source.” (24)

The mainstream media and many others in the establishment like to say that there are three branches of government with checks and balances and a separation of powers laid out by the Constitution. But as I have noted, from the signing of the Constitution, there was already some extreme powers given to the President. Throughout history, the powers of the President and the Executive Branch have expanded to an unprecedented scale. This has been accompanied by the replacement of representative government “by the imperial system of 1950s [where] the corporate ownership is the only power in the land and not accountable to any authority,” as noted by Gore Vidal in his book, The American Presidency. At the same time, Vidal argues at one point in his book that the office of President is powerless, which this analysis proves is not based in fact. Later he writes that a President isn’t needed in peacetime, which I find suspect because since military interventions have occurred since 1798, the country has never really been in “peacetime” mode fully. You may ask what this has to do with dictatorial powers and the question asked in the beginning if a President is a dictator. The term dictator must be restated again, which means according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary: Fourth Edition: “a ruler with absolute authority, esp. one who exercises it tyrannically,” “A person who orders others about domineeringly,” or “one whose pronouncements on some subject are meant to be taken as the final word.”

From my analysis I would say that Abraham Lincoln and FDR were definitely dictators, no doubt while Teddy Roosevelt was an international emperor. Gore Vidal notes that both of them were “imperial and tyrannical in their powers and the people, not to mention economic masters.” Even so, many other leaders never reached the point of dictatorship, but still had dictatorial powers. Presidents John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were chief executives with “war time” dictatorial powers, which include powers related to “anti-terror” measures. In addition, there is another class of presidents, based on what Arthur Schlesinger wrote, imperial presidents. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush definitely fall into this category for the action during their terms of office. Finally, there is one last class of presidents, expansionist Presidents which include James Polk, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler and Franklin Pierce. Many others could fall into these categories, but this is what I believe is correct at this time. In the end, the American people must remember that the President has a good amount of power (I helped out by creating a list of powers the President current has at his disposal, which is below. and be critical of any measure or policy that gives the President absolute authority.

Powers the American President has gained from 1787 to Present


























5 Responses to “Is the American President a dictator?: UPDATED and EDITED”

  1. interestingblogger November 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    This is a little weird, but yeah, post away.


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