Commander-in-Chief: an officer who has supreme command of military forces; in the U.S. the president; used as an honorific title to denote the President of the United States, as commander of the nation’s armed forces.
Generalissimo: a supreme commander of the combined armed forces in some countries, who often also has political power.
The major crisis facing American democracy and its long-standing Republican form of government, especially the carefully crafted tri-partite separation of powers into executive, judicial and legislative, is at root the result of the deliberate conflation by President Bush and Vice President Cheney of the title commander in chief with the concept of generalissimo--a role exemplified by such benighted leaders as Mussolini and Franco in Europe, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and a host of Latin American dictators.
The authors of America's Constitution added the title and role of commander in chief to that of president, specifically out of concern about a possible military coup. Their idea was to ensure that as commander in chief, a president answerable to Congress and the people would outrank any general in the American governmental system.
Bush has taken that bare bones role, which has no relationship to his political duties as chief executive, and conjured up out of thin air the theory that "in time of war" his position as commander in chief allows him to assume the powers of both the legislature and the judiciary, and to override such inconvenient hindrances to executive authority as the Bill of Rights and common law protections such as habeas corpus dating back as much as 800 years.
He has, in effect, converted the very limited concept of commander in chief, which was really never anything more than a rank placing him above five-star general, to that of generalissimo, which is just another term for dictator.
Consider the fact that a ranking four-star general, even the joint chief of staff at the Pentagon, has no authority over the ordinary U.S. citizen. Except under a declaration of martial law, such a general can't even order a civilian not to cross the street. Nor can the president, in his role as commander in chief.
A generalissimo, however, besides being the top officer in the military, is also the absolute ruler over the populace and the other parts of the government. He answers only to himself, and makes and enforces the laws as he sees fit. This is exactly the power that President Bush is claiming as commander in chief.
When Bush argues, as he attempted to do unsuccessfully in the recently decided Hamdan case before the US Supreme Court, that as "commander in chief" he can decide the fate of captured fighters in the war in Afghanistan, or the so-called "War on Terror," and can arbitrarily ignore the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Captured Prisoners of War, despite the US having signed that treaty and incorporated it into the US Criminal Code, when he claims the right, as he did in the case of US citizen Jose Padilla and several other Americans, to declare certain people to be "enemy combatants" and to revoke their rights of citizenship, when he claims the right to ignore duly passed acts of Congress, and to violate laws and such rights as the Fourth Amendment, as he has done in the case of the warrantless spying on citizens by the National Security Agency, he is claiming the power of a generalissimo, not of a commander in chief.
(It is significant to note that after the Supreme Court ruled against his commander-in-chief argument that he had the right to ignore the Geneva Conventions in Guantanamo, Bush, instead of saying he would "of course comply" with the court's ruling, said he was "willing to comply" with the decision, clearly implying that he didn't feel compelled to comply with a decision by the High Court.)
Ideally, Congress would be challenging this assault on its own authority by a megalomaniacal president. Ideally the federal courts would be slapping down this affront to the Constitution. But Congress is in the hands of the president’s party, and Republicans in Congress are content to sit on their hands as the Constitution they swore to uphold and defend is trashed. The Democratic "opposition" party, meanwhile, has been so afraid of being accused of "treason," or of being "soft on terrorism," that they have done little or nothing to block the president's power grabs. Many Democrats in Congress have even endorsed the nomination of judges like John Roberts and Sam Alito who back the president's dictatorial ambitions. And the Supreme Court, as well as the lower courts, are being packed with apologists for unfettered presidential power.
If we Americans do not demand that Congress stand up to this unconstitutional power grab, if we do not demand that only those who believe in the concept of separation of powers and who share the founders' abiding fear of an overly powerful presidency be elevated to the federal bench, and if we do not start publicly protesting this perversion of the presidency, American democracy could be on its last legs.
Italy suffered mightily as a strutting small-minded man with a grotesquely inflated ego launched that country into pointless wars of aggression in the Middle East, and usurped all governmental power, calling himself generalissimo.
America today is perilously close to a reprise of that tragedy, as another strutting small-minded man with a similarly grotesquely inflated ego launches the nation into pointless wars of aggression in the Middle East and usurps governmental power, calling himself commander in chief.
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