Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Politics of Prosecuting the Past

Waterboarding is torture. Torture is a crime. Crimes should be prosecuted and punishments meted out accordingly. We are a nation of laws and no one is above the law.

Politics is about getting things done … or not.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Let me be clear about where I stand just in case it isn’t already by the name of this blog: I believe George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, David Addington, John Yoo, and many others, both conspired to engage and indeed did engage in criminal acts involving the authorization of torture and the use of illegal interrogation tactics in prosecuting their fraudulent war in Iraq and by extension the so-called War On Terror. I believe they should be indicted, tried, and if found guilty, sentenced in accordance with the standards of law appropriate for the heinousness of the crimes committed. Though certainly impeachable offenses while all were still in office, these crimes may also rise to the level of treason and should then also be treated accordingly. I think I’ve now made myself clear.

Nevertheless, I have serious doubts that the Obama administration will proceed with an in-depth investigation and is even less likely to seek indictments. If I am correct, it is not for a lack of desire to do so because I think the new administration is quite serious about bringing lawfulness and openness back to the White House. But I also understand that this country faces enormous challenges to its existence on a variety of fronts. Regardless of the principled approach Obama will demand of his policy-makers, he is first and foremost a pragmatist and is engaged in the work of getting things done at a time when things badly need doing. So in the short term, meaning at least for Obama’s first year in office, the discussion of whether or not there will be any investigations of the former administration is going to be left to the probably increasing agitation of the folks on the far left of the political spectrum. They will keep the issue alive and for that I want to thank them in advance because I am with them. But before we get to the business of putting Bush and friends in the dock, I am more inclined to focus first on policies which will assure that there will still be a country with a legal system that can support such trials a year from now.

Already we can see the makings of what will become a delicate dance between congressional democrats and republicans over the economic stimulus package. The extremes have declared it is either; a) too small; b) too big; c) not fast enough; d) overlarded with pork; and so forth. If this so-called era of new bi-partisanship is to occur, the Boehner (pronounced Boh’-nr) faction will require some manner of mollification to sign on.

Regardless of the outcome, for now the economy is by necessity the immediate focus of the administration. Of course, as Obama said during the transition in one of his many sly swipes at the Bush administration, “[we] should be able to do more than one thing at a time.” So theoretically running an investigation of Bush torture crimes should be easy to manage over at Justice while the money folks are working out the stimulus plan. However, as should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Republican party the past 15 years or so, their operating principle is, McCain’s campaign slogan aside, Party First. As such, you can be assured that any serious whiff of official engagement in engaging a torture tribunal will be met with wholesale obstructionism by the GOP on every major policy effort Obama makes. If it hasn’t become clear that many in the GOP would rather see the country continue to swirl down the toilet rather than adjust their principles or cede some authority willingly, then I’m not sure what the point is of continuing to read this post.

Should an investigation into war crimes immediately begin work? Absolutely. Will it? Presuming we even get an Attorney General soon (see previous paragraph for an explanation of this one), the answer will be no. Claims will be made that the Department of Justice needs to be put back in order and in the business of ferreting out financial crimes rather than to get involved in such high profile and partisan a matter as war crimes and really, it’s just too political a hot-button issue for now. There really is current work which needs to be done that does not need to be stone-walled because Bush and company spent too much time emulating 24.

And really, if we’re talking expediency here, let’s give it a year and see if the economy can be set on solid footing; let’s allow the Obama administration to get some bi-partisan support to do some good things to fix the mistakes of the past eight years. If they can manage that in a year, garnering the credit and political capital which would result, well, then it’s time to start thinking about the 2010 elections. That would be a fine time to declare some victories and get into the business of redressing past grievances. The netroots folks will need their rallying cry and this will be a perfect time to make the push to get over 60 in the Senate and begin the process of putting the GOP as it still exists out of our misery. Maybe then, publicly plucking Bush from his plush digs in Dallas, and Cheney from his iron lung in Dubai will show the world that we in the United States really do care about following the laws we enact.


Mike P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike P. said...

I'm running behind and trying to play catch-up here.

Philosophically, I couldn't agree more and your idea to let things ride a bit until next year makes good practical sense, but I'm skeptical. What about a truth and reconciliation commission instead of a set of trials for war crimes? The very idea of war crimes trials is so incendiary that even a year to cool off from the Bush period wouldn't cut it. The shitstorm that would hit would sink anything Barry's trying to get done and probably alienate a lot of moderate voters. I can hear Repubs now: "Obama sets terrorists free but prosecutes American Presidents."

Meanwhile, truth and reconciliation commissions work. The proof is in South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere. Those countries aren't perfect, but commissions there did a hell of a lot of good and shined some light in some very dark places. What's more, a commission like this would be just as cathartic, but without the same level of political fuss. I'd love to see the whole lot of the Bush crew tried, convicted, and thrown in prison, but that'd be the end of our friend's ability to do some real good for more than those of us who still occasionally like to howl "Revolution!" into our pints.