the blog of DC Drinking Liberally

October 20, 2005

Yes, Virginia, There is a Secret Cabal


Steve Clemons has a post up at TPMCafe that I’d have to rate as one of the most important things I’ve read recently. Steve is reporting on a talk that former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson gave at the New America foundation yesterday.

Wilkerson is saying that the framer’s of US foreign policy in the era after WWII wanted to avoid another Roosevelt. Nothing against FDR, it’s just that the notion of power concentrated in the Executive branch could lead to the situation that Eisenhower warned us about: where the country is run by the military-industrial complex.

As Wilkerson puts it:

They did not want another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They even amended the Constitution to make sure they didn’t get one for more than 8 years. But they didn’t want the secrecy.

They didn’t want the concentration of power. They didn’t want the lack of transparency into principle decisions that got people killed. Even though they’ve been successful in arguably one of the greatest conflicts the world has seen. And so they set about trying to insure that this wouldn’t happen again.

I don’t think even his critics would have argued that FDR wasn’t a brilliant politician and a brilliant leader. But let’s think about it for a moment. If you’re one of the framers. How often does America get brilliant leaders? Put them down on paper. I can count them myself on one hand.

You can perhaps count them on 2 hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions. I prefer one hand. So we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody, or at least nearly so. You laugh, but I’m not trying to solicit your laughter.

I think it’s a real problem in our democracy. You have to have a system that is so elastic, so resilient, so able to take punches that at one time one branch can supplant another or one branch can come up and check another. It’s the old business of checks and balances. If you concentrate power and you do it in a way that is not that different from the way Franklin Roosevelt concentrated it, but you don’t have someone who is brilliant [inaudible] the utilization of that power, you’ve got problems.

It’s notable that this discussion is happening during the release of George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate. While I’ve seen criticism that Packer insufficiently represents the anti-war view, the book is said to put flesh and blood on vague notions I’ve had, the left has had, that there is a secret government taking the country towards a precipice.

Wilkerson comments on Packer’s book:

And I wish, I wish I had been able to help George Packer write that book. In some places I could have given him a hell of a lot more specifics than he’s got. But if you want to read how the Cheney Rumsfeld cabal flummoxed the process, read that book. And, of course, there are other names in there, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas [inaudible], whom most of you probably know Tommy Frank said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.

And yet, and yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere. That’s not making excuses for the State Department.


  1. The proponents of the imperial (or dictatorial) presidency make me think that views on executive power are probably the most important criteria for judging Supreme Court nominees nowadays. And that’s probably a reason to oppose Harriet Miers (except that we can’t be sure of her views on much of anything).

    Oh, and to fill in the “[inaudible]”, it was Douglas Feith whom Tommy Franks called “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth”.

    Keith12:42 pm

  2. I think it’s important to note that many, if not most conservatives are sympathetic to limitations on executive power. The only major group within the conservative movement that loves the idea of executive power is the neoconservative cabal. Other conservatives simply saw executive power as a means to an end during the Cold War. The neocons are not well-liked by other conservatives. It will be interesting to see this dislike magnified, a very real possibility now that conservatives are starting to point their guns at the Bush Admin and one another.

    Jason Bradfield1:49 pm

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