Column: Is the "War on Terrorism" just another "Quasi War"?

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Mr. Spencer is assistant professor of history at Northwest Missouri State University.

It is safe to say that the Bush administration had an embarrassing week last week. Ashcroft was at his fear-mongering, headline-stealing best, trying to further what even some of our obedient Washington press corps has begun to call his"ministry of fear." The White House was embarrassed by Ashcroft's satellite link-up from Moscow last week in which he overstated the evidence in the dirty bomb case in one of the most bizarre grand-standing performances of recent memory.

We have reached a pretty frightening point in the"war on terrorism." For several months now the Bush Administration has been shamelessly using the war on terrorism to further its own political ends and bolster its approval rating (it hasn't worked terribly well, Bush's approval rating is coming down slowly, bit by bit). Many in the civil rights community are also beginning to raise important questions about the treatment of U.S. citizens Jose Padilla, Yasser Hamdi, and John Walker Lindh by the administration. As U.S. citizens, two of them (the two darker-skinned of them interestingly enough) have been declared"enemy combatants" and locked up in a military brig in South Carolina. John Walker Lindh, lighter-skinned and coming from middle-class suburbia, is being afforded all of his rights as a citizen by our judicial system. After these recent developments, many on both sides of the political fence are beginning to wonder if this administration cares one whit about the Bill of Rights and civil liberties.

In searching for historical parallels to the current situation, many in the press have pointed to some of FDR's decisions during World War II, the Wilson administration's odious embrace of rights-curbing laws during World War I, and Abraham Lincoln's well-known (and unconstitutional) actions to suppress dissent in the North during the Civil War. However, all of these examples seem to miss a fairly important point. In all of the above cases the nation was clearly at war. One could not say the same thing today. The word"war" is thrown around so carelessly by politicians and the media today -- we have the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on illiteracy, the war on halitosis, etc. The word itself no longer has any meaning. Nonetheless, it is important to point out that the only ones currently throwing around the word"war" are those who are benefiting from calling our current situation a war, those in government who wish to expand their powers and those in the media who want to increase their viewership.

I would argue there is an interesting historical parallel that I have yet to see explored in the media or by historians. Although Bush has quite a bit of affection for John Quincy Adams (whom Bush and his father refer to by the goofy frat-boy nickname of"Q"), Bush's administration is beginning to more resemble the administration of John Quincy Adams's father, John Adams. Between 1798 and 1800, the Federalist Party and the Adams administration tried to use a similar foreign policy situation for political gain. Sounding much like the Bush Administration today, the Adams Administration and the Federalists claimed that national unity was important and that those who criticized their actions were aiding the enemy. This war in the late eighteenth century is referred to by historians as the"Quasi War" with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts passed during this period and signed by President Adams are generally regarded by historians as one of the most dangerous federal assaults on civil liberties in the nation's history. However, the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act, passed in October 2001, might actually represent a more extensive government assault on civil liberties. Ironically, this action comes from an administration that ostensibly professes a desire for a smaller, less intrusive government.

Of course, there are certain things that simply don't fit in this comparison that should be pointed out. The Federalists were rapidly losing support politically in the nation in the late 1790s and saw the Quasi War as their last real chance to hold on to their position of power. Although Bush's administration did appear to be on the political ropes in August and early September of last year, the Republican Party itself is in no danger of fading away anytime soon. While this comparison has its limits, it is still worthwhile.

Like the Federalists of the 1790s, the Republicans of the 2000s represent the wealthy and powerful. The Federalists were the champions of the rich mercantile elite of the time. A cursory examination of the Bush Administration's actions show them to be the champions of the rich, even the super-rich, today. In fact, like the Federalists, they often are rich themselves. Also like the Bush Administration and Republicans for the last 20 years or so, the Federalists had trouble taking responsibility for their own actions. Like David Horowitz and other buck-passing conservatives today, the Federalists preferred to blame others for the nation's problems, primarily foreigners and those in the other party. Like the conservative simpletons today who believe that liberals are behind all of the day's problems, the Federalists in Washington's and Adams's administrations had been trying to blame every major foreign and domestic crisis of the 1790s - even the Whiskey Rebellion - on the emerging Democratic-Republican Party.

A bit of historical context would also be helpful. As is often the case, foreign policy had become a political football in the 1790s. As the French Revolution spun violently out of control in the middle 1790s, the two parties began to disagree about the nation's policy towards France. The Democratic-Republicans sympathized with the revolutionaries while the Federalists, themselves the aristocrats of American society, believed the rabble in France that was in charge of the government was the cause of the problems in France. If only France would defer to the better elements in their society, the situation would improve. Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans began to believe there was a similar struggle between autocracy and democracy was going in America. Jefferson believed that George Washington's administration (which was, by the middle of his second term, essentially a Federalist administration) and those who supported the Federalist Party (including Adams and Alexander Hamilton) represented the powerful elite.

By 1795, the political partisanship became particularly acrimonious. The two parties, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, each believed themselves to be the heirs of revolutionary principles and the other to be dangerous subversives who wanted to destroy the republic. By the time of Washington's farewell address in September of 1796, which was not much more than a partisan attack on the Democratic-Republicans, the political situation had reached a boiling point and pitched political battles and heated rhetoric ensued.

Two years later, as Adams and the Federalists began to worry about the future, they seized on the Quasi War as a way to revive their political fortunes. Using the aforementioned Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists began to throw prominent Democratic-Republican critics in jail for violating the Sedition Act by speaking out against the administration's actions. Like the present, the party in the White House had a number of allies in the federal court system who did the administration's legal heavy-lifting for them with regard to the Sedition Act.

In the fall of 1798, the state legislatures in Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions (ghost-written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void within their borders thus providing the first legal ammunition for Southerners who would later claim that the states could nullify federal laws - particularly those dealing with slavery. Ironically, it is the descendants of these Southern small government and states' rights advocates who are behind the present-day PATRIOT Act. Jefferson and Madison would be spinning in their graves.

However, by the time of the presidential election in 1800, many Americans began to believe Adams's administration had over-reached in its quest for political power and control. Like Bush today, Adams always saw his party's actions simply as necessary war-time measures. The Quasi War as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts ultimately cost Adams and the Federalists control of the White House and Congress as many Americans began to believe the Federalists were using the foreign policy situation for political gain and to quiet their opponents.

This is the danger that the Bush Administration faces today. It has tried to link everything (even trade policy) to the war on terrorism for the last several months. Many Americans are beginning to see the administration's actions in a similar light.

Probably the most interesting parallel between the two situations is that there is apparently no limit to the hunger for power on the part of those already wealthy and powerful. Both situations are examples of the use of a foreign policy crisis to weaken civil liberties, quiet dissent and strengthen the party's political position for the upcoming election season. However, the Bush Administration needs to heed the lesson of Adams's administration - and not just because historians are likely to judge them harshly for the championing of the PATRIOT Act. As in 1800, the Bush Administration runs the real political risk of Americans growing tired of the drumbeat of a perpetual, politically-motivated, and ill-defined Quasi War.