Losing the Law War: The Bush Administration's Strategic Errors

11 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2007 Last revised: 13 Dec 2007


This short essay analyzes the failures of the Bush's administration legal strategy in the war on terror. The many mistakes had common roots. The first was an ideological focus on bolstering executive power and a consequent lack of pragmatic flexibility in choosing tactics that would maximize the chances of gaining public and judicial acceptance of its framework for detention, interrogation and trial of terrorists as well as surveillance of individuals resident in America. The administration repeatedly failed to recognize that reliance on executive authority alone entailed a high risk of defeat at the hands of the Court.

Second, the administration radically underestimated the magnitude of the risk that the Court would curb the President's discretion, because it misunderstood the changed legal environment for litigation in the twenty-first century. Every aspect of American life has been increasingly subject to court made rules. As a result of this trend even discretion in the war on terror would likely be seen through the prism of legalism that applies to domestic criminal law.

The third systematic error was a failure to recognize that all administrations tend to lose power as they age, and wars run a high risk of exacerbating that loss as they become progressively less popular. Of course, the scandals at Abu Ghrab and the more general lack of success in Iraq could not have been predicted. But an administration's legal high command must choose strategies that take account of the worst possible outcomes.

As a result, the administration would have been well advised to take every step to bolster its legal position as early as practicable. It could have secured from Congress framework legislation for detention, military tribunals, surveillance, and even interrogation. Because citizens are generally most supportive of an administration at the beginning of a conflict, the terms of trade of the administration with Congress would have been likely favorable. This strategy would have avoided delays in war crimes trials. Perhaps more importantly, it would have avoided the appearance of lawlessness which has sapped support at home and abroad for the administration's reasonable objectives in its war against terrorists.

Suggested Citation

McGinnis, John, Losing the Law War: The Bush Administration's Strategic Errors. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1010354 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1010354

John McGinnis (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3235 (Phone)

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