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Originally published Friday, February 24, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Book review

'The Emergency State:' overreaching presidents, from Roosevelt to Obama

In his new book, "The Emergency State," New York Times editorial writer David Unger argues that in the annals of the American presidency, ignoring the law in pursuit of political and military power is nothing new. Unger discusses his book Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Unger

The author of "The Emergency State" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 (for tickets: 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.).
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Guantánamo. Preventive detention. Military tribunals. Wiretapping. Extraordinary rendition. Preventive war.

To hear some tell it, these things are tied to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They are — but also, argues David Unger in his new book, "The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security At All Costs" (Penguin Press, 359 pp., $27.95), some were done first by other presidents. All are the products of an "emergency state" much older than the administration of the younger Bush.

Unger writes on foreign policy for the editorial board of The New York Times. By "the emergency state," he means a government that ignores the law in its pursuit of power. The American emergency state, he writes, began in 1940, when Germany invaded France and President Roosevelt declared a national emergency.

Franklin Roosevelt, he writes, was the "founding father of modern extraconstitutional presidential war-making, the military-industrial complex, and covert federal surveillance of lawful domestic political activity."

There was a war on, and Roosevelt, he writes, "maneuvered the country" into it. America had gone to war before, and had an emergency state before, but the practice was to end it when the war ended. The World War I emergency state ended after Woodrow Wilson left office. But after World War II, Harry Truman responded to Stalin's Soviet Union with the doctrine of global containment. He created the National Security Agency, the CIA and a peacetime draft. That was the birth of the peacetime emergency state, and it has been with us ever since.

"We forget there ever was a different America," writes Unger. "But there was, and we could have it again."

Unger sounds like Rep. Ron Paul, the Republican candidate for president. Unger's No. 1 suggested reform is, "Presidential war powers come only with a declaration of war," which is right out of Paul's agenda. So is the ending of foreign wars and the emergency state. Paul should be his man, but Unger holds out no hope for Republicans and never mentions the Texas libertarian. Unger is a liberal, and he is really addressing his book to Democrats.

They should read it. They will enjoy its solid bashing of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, who Unger calls, "the two most enthusiastic emergency-state Republicans." Of all the presidents of the past 70 years, Unger is the most charitable to Jimmy Carter, but he has little good to say of Bill Clinton, whose administration invented "extraordinary rendition," the practice of subcontracting out torture to foreign governments.

Unger sums up Barack Obama in a chapter called, "Hope Abandoned."

This was to be expected. Obama is a mainstream Democrat and, Unger writes:

"The emergency state cohabits comfortably with the modern Democratic Party's core beliefs — activist presidents, broad and flexible constitutional interpretation, big and free-spending government, and belief in the possibility and desirability of social engineering on a global scale."

Democrats tend to explain their wars differently than Republicans do, but they still have them.

Unger ends his book with a call to return to "the constitutional principles that served the country so well for the century and a half up to 1940." He sounds like Ron Paul again, or maybe Dennis Kucinich, but not like our president or anyone likely to become our president on Jan. 20, 2013.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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