Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely


Tran Binh Nam

Note: This is the English version of an article in Vietnamese posted in this home page on November 12, 2006:  Please see link: http://www.tranbinhnam.com/binhluan/Quyen_Hanh_Tuyet_Doi.html  **

The French have a saying: “Le pouvoir pourrit” and the Anglo-Saxon: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This is a phenomenon reflecting human nature. In other words, no political regime, no human being, can elude this truth. If an individual or a political party holds power for too long, this is the root cause behind a corrupt society.

As a consequence, the notion of democracy has been born on the fundamental concept that the person(s) in power must seek the consent of the majority of the people through periodic elections in order to prevent the monopoly of power by an individual or political party. For ample caution, all democratic nations operate on the basis of the rule of law with a Constitution as fundamental law, in which the concept of separation of powers is enshrined: the Legislative power reserved for the Congress, the Executive power reserved for the Administration, and the Judiciary power reserved for the Courts in case of breach of the laws.

Such separation of powers provides for check and balance in order to prevent too much concentration of power in one hand. On top of this separation of powers is the freedom of expression of the people epitomized by a free press.

Europe has a democratic tradition. England, probably unintentionally, exported this democratic tradition to its former colonies of Australia, Canada and the USA. As a result, upon acquiring independence, these countries became enduring democratic nations. In particular in the case of the USA, their bitter struggle to gain independence from Great Britain in the 18th century, has taught them that the notion of democracy and freedom of speech are the most potent safeguards against absolute power.

But, in their history as the most perfect democracy on earth, even the USA did not escape the reaches of corruption by absolute power. During the 12 years since 1994 when the Republican Party was in control of Congress (except for a brief period from mid 2001 to end of 2002 when the Democratic Party controlled the Senate by one seat due to one senator leaving the Republican Party) and since 2004 when President George W Bush was re-elected for a second term, absolute power resided with the Republicans.

The September 11 terrorist attack made George W Bush into a president with an anti-terrorist mission to protect the American people. In a way this event has delivered to him a mandate with the support of more than 80% of the people. He did not have that mandate less than a year before when he was elected in a disputed election, with the presidency finally delivered to him by a decision of the Supreme Court, barring the vote recount in the state of Florida.

There is no question that President Bush had the support of both houses of Congress and the media to invade Afghanistan in order to destroy Al Qaeda when the Taliban regime refused to deliver Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s leader and mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attack. 

Also, a resolution of the United Nations Security Council authorized such an attack by the USA on Afghanistan as a defensive measure. But during the early phase of the preparation of the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush’s neo-conservative associates had already made plans for an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

This plan was followed by various maneuvers, some of them dubious, by these associates to convince the international community that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that the people of Iraq would welcome their liberators with open arms and that democracy would come to Iraq subsequent to liberation. None of this happened.

Instead the White House and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made several errors of judgment such as disbanding the entire Iraqi army, dismissing all Baath Party officials from administrative positions, and not sending enough troops to pacify Iraq.

Such absolute power in the hands of the neo-cons has led to drastic consequences on the battlefield resulting in half a million Iraqi casualties and more than 2800 American military casualties, while democracy in this nation remains an illusion.

Meanwhile absolute power also led to erroneous and extreme internal policies. The Congress failed to listen to the people, failed to check the actions of the administration and only paid attention to their own self interests. During 2006, Congress met 60 days while the average number of days at work for Americans was 250. The Republicans pushed through their legislative agenda regardless of the opinions of the Democratic minority. This has led to the situation where an Alaskan Representative had been able to earmark $223 million to build a bridge to link Ketchikan City with an island of 50 residents!

Without the “checks” by Congress, President George W Bush governed by instinct. He spent $120 billion since 2006 to placate 40 million senior citizens and $236 billion on the Iraq war. The budget surplus on his ascension to the White House has been transformed into a $200 billion deficit after 6 years in power.  

Finally on 7 November 2006 the people spoke. The Democratic Party won majority seats and control of both houses of Congress. Only one day afterwards President Bush announced he had accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and appointed Robert Gates, a former CIA Director as his replacement. The President also had met with Democratic leaders such as Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid who would lead the House and the Senate respectively, and expressed his willingness for cooperation in order to resolve outstanding issues on the national agenda.

What are the policies of the Democratic Party in relation to the Iraq war?

There is hope that they would not insist on immediate withdrawal of troops but a gradual one so as to avoid the bloodshed of a wide open civil war, and for the government of Iraq to be able to consolidate its power.

Allowing Iraq to split up into three smaller nations may be another option on the table. Such event had taken place earlier in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and peace resulted from such event. Smaller nations may not be prone to instabilities as many would have us believe. Examples are Singapore and Hong-Kong which are prosperous and stable.

The Democratic Party should concern themselves more with the democratic movements of the world in accordance with their own tradition, especially in developing nations still reeling under dictatorial regimes, and express their support for the democratic ideal. Above all the Party should uphold an anti-terrorist policy that can assuage the concerns of Americans and of the world.

The Bush policy of “striking at terrorism overseas” to protect America is no longer valid. America may have to resort to “tit for tat” tactics: a strike at American interests or American lives will meet with forceful reprisal action by America. The USA must renounce the concept of American inviolability in order to make America safer.

On the home front, the Democrats will resort to the concept of check and balance to adjust the various policies of the government. They may need to refrain from the temptation to abuse their majority in both houses of Congress to “impeach” President Bush.

The conduct of both the Republicans (holding Executive power) and the Democrats (holding Legislative power) will position them for the presidential election in 2008. If the Democrats could assist in resolving the thorny problems of the country, especially the problem of Iraq as the wishes of the people expressed in the 7 November 2006 election, they may win the White House. On the other hand, if they are unable to resolve them but concentrate on their self interests, they will lose. This would be a good opportunity for Senator John McCain.

Political events in America in the last 12 years are a good lesson for world leaders, especially those in totalitarian regimes.

During the 12 years of absolute power, the Republican Party has created an extremist president and a corrupt Congress, sowing division within the people, undermining the international reputation and prestige of the most powerful nation on earth. This has happened in a country with a democratic tradition, with democratic institutions, and with freedom of expression. This is enough food for thought.

The Vietnamese leaders should compare what happened to absolute power in the USA, with the situation in Vietnam where the people have to endure the absolute power of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) for 31 years since 1975. A nation with only a superficial veneer, while corruption devours its culture, society, education and moral fabric. Worst of all, a nation which pretends to participate in the international anti-terrorist movement, but resorts to terrorist measures such as stripping naked a religious leader, threatening dissidents with planting heroin in their homes to arrest them, causing traffic accidents, using underworld elements to assault dissidents…

The CPV always speak of wisdom and patriotism. Why not resort to wisdom to select the right path, and resort to patriotism to spur right action. A referendum to ask the 60 million voters (over 18) whether they consent to Article 4 of the Constitution, granting absolute power to 3 million members of the CPV, would be a first step in the right direction.

Tran Binh Nam

Dec. 9, 2006





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