CRB: Rush to Judgment

We featured Professor Stephen Knott’s preview of his new book, Rush To Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, in this post last March. University of California Berkeley law professor and former Justice Department official John Yoo – a man much-maligned in all the right places – reviews Professor Knott’s new book in the just-released Summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here).

Recounting his own part in this drama, Yoo presents the life-and-death questions confronting the executive branch in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of 9/11: How to define an enemy that includes American citizens? How to find an enemy that eschews uniforms and blends seamlessly into the very cities they seek to destroy? How to take the fight to them when conventional laws of war never anticipated such a conflict? For their blindness to the difficulty of these questions and resort to partisan bellyaching, Yoo – and Knott – take the American historical profession to task:

Knott finds frustrating not only that academics give Bush little credit for protecting the homeland, but also that they remain openly and notoriously inconsistent in their criticism. Bush may have ordered the waterboarding of three al-Qaeda leaders, for which some presidential scholars believed the heavens would fall. Obama, by contrast, has used drones to kill hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders and sometimes innocent family members and bystanders—a greater deprivation of the human rights of many more people. Bush’s academic critics raised nary a peep in protest. Scholars claimed that Guantanamo Bay amounted to some kind of legal black hole, rather than a prisoner-of-war camp over which military, not civilian, rules normally apply. Several of these critics have served in an administration that has kept Guantanamo open and continued a policy of detention without trial for enemy combatants. Even the dreaded signing statements, by which Bush allegedly circumvented the Constitution, have been resurrected by his successor. The faculty lounges, somehow, are not abuzz this time.

It should be expected that extraordinary executive authority will provoke outrage—its very nature upsets settled expectations and understandings. Vigorous presidents from George Washington to Jackson to Lincoln regularly encountered cries of tyranny for their exercise of the office’s independent authority. The academy’s role may even render such criticism part of a democracy’s healthy feedback loop.

But Knott’s disappointment in his colleagues verges on anger when they insist on having it both ways: behaving like partisan hacks, while speaking with the authority of disinterested scholars. Not only have they undermined the nation’s ability to evaluate its policies and leaders and, ultimately, to better understand itself; these ward heelers with endowed chairs have also ruined their profession’s claim to rationality and objectivity. The war begun on September 11, 2001, has claimed many casualties. The American historical profession is among the most grievous, only in the sense that it was the least necessary.

Please check out Professor Yoo’s review of this excellent book.


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