Sorry, Barack, but the rule of law trumps politics

Perhaps more than most liberals, I actually do sympathize with Barack Obama in his strong desire to avoid prosecuting (soon to be) former Bush officials for their various crimes. It would look vindictive. Most importantly, it would create a political firestorm at the very moment he needs to push an incredibly full legislative plate through Congress.

And to be honest, there is something to be said for the idea of not wanting to “criminalize” politics. Do we really want to get into a position where every time there’s a turnover in party control of the White House, the new guys go on a scavenger hunt looking for things to prosecute the old crew for?

Who could claim that would be in the national interest?

But as reasonable as all this sounds, ultimately it suffers from a fundamental flaw of logic due to the failure to take into account the fabled 800 pound elephant in the room — the fact that when it comes to criminality, the Bush boys and girls aren’t just any old administration. No, we’re talking here about the Corleone family of presidencies — an administration that almost from the opening bell, and continuing for every second thereafter, claimed an almost absolute right to disregard the rule of law at its whim.

Whether we’re discussing politicizing of the Department of Justice, torturing suspects, illegal surveillance, disregarding environmental statutesfrustrating all efforts at congressional oversight, outing a CIA agent for political revenge and then covering it up, handing out massive bribes in the form of no-bid contracts to political contributors (and so much more), the story is always the same.

“The rule of law?” say the Bushies. “Don’t make us laugh.”

And if George W. Bush is free to ignore the law anytime his chickenhawk little heart desires, what exactly prevents any future president from claiming the same privilege?

There are some things so obvious they shouldn’t have to be spoken, but I guess this one needs to be screamed out loud again and again. The rule of law becomes meaningless unless there are consequences for its violation.

Let’s say it again: the rule of law becomes meaningless unless there are consequences for its violation.

And as it happens, this is something I wrote about more than six years ago, back very early in the Bush Administration. See if you don’t think the words are as timely today as they were back then:

Welcome to George W. Bush’s America, where we no longer have a “government of laws and not men,” but increasingly a government of just one man (with a little help from dad’s friends).

We have to ask ourselves what this means for our democracy, already hobbled by the last election. The rule of law is, after all, the life blood of any democratic system - what separates true democracies, like the United States, from fraudulent ones, like the old Soviet Union. The right to vote by itself isn’t ultimately the point: it’s the right to have that vote translated into controlling law that gives the process meaning. When a president claims the privilege to simply make up the rules as he goes along, this meaning evaporates.

It’s the same sad story on individual liberties. James Madison always worried that the Bill of Rights would become a mere “parchment barrier,” with little practical power to protect individual freedoms. It now seems that Bush agrees with him, although unlike Madison, he views this as an opportunity, instead of a threat.

So, yes, the importance of the rule of law has been haunting my thoughts lately. Maybe it’s been haunting yours, too. The question, of course, is whether it will ever haunt enough of us badly enough that we will finally do something about it.

So, I’m sorry. I understand where Obama is coming from in wanting to avoid the political fallout that would come from pursuing criminal charges against Bush officials. I really do. But there’s more on the line here than just what’s politically expedient for him right now.

Maybe people don’t have to go to jail. Maybe not every one of the bottomless pit of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by this group of hoodlums needs to be prosecuted.

But there must be some measure of accountability. The future health of our democratic system depends on it.

8 Responses to “Sorry, Barack, but the rule of law trumps politics”

  1. mgrello Says:

    Mr. Obama is partially held prisoner by the inaction and cowardice of our legislature. Attempts to initiate impeachment proceeding have been squashed at the federal and state level by Democratic leaders. Along with any punitive actions there must be a radical change in the laws and structures that allowed this to occur in the first place.

    Two suggestions:
    1. Hold truth and reconciliation hearings, as has been done in other liberated ex-dictatorships.
    This would be to arrive at the truth and begin healing, it would send a powerful message about what is OK and wrong in the administration of government. The outcome of these hearings must then be codified into future law to protect the citizens of this nation from this kind of abuse going forward and protect good honest public servants from frivolous prosecution.

    2. Sign the World Criminal Court treaty.
    This should have been done years ago, and doing it as soon after January 20th as possible would just be remedying a negligent decision. It would be neither political nor vindictive, but would both indicate to the rest of the world our willingness to live by the rule of law and make those who were guilty responsible for their actions.

  2. Chuck Says:

    well said mgrello, but how many executive pardons will be handed out in the last weeks of this administration? Fortunatly a president is not allowed to pardon himself, but unfortunatly most of the damage was done by Cheney because Bush is too dumb to have figured it out for himself, so the whole cabal could be pardoned. At least that’s the way I understand it.

  3. gde Says:

    Sadly, there is such a strong precedent for not going after US criminals who committed the greatest crimes. Over 600,000 US citizens died because Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and others, thought that mass killing was preferable to the abolishment of slavery. Lee is one of the top 3 heroes of the cadets at West Point. Andrew Jackson was not only a strong proponent of genocide of US citizens, in order to steal their land, he was also an avid practitioner. Yet, every time one withdraws cah from an ATM in the US, one receives official US documents honoring this man, and presumably his crimes. Of course, the list of unpunished uber-criminals is much larger.

  4. Larkrise Says:

    I agree that the law needs to represent a higher calling than political expediency. If Obama fails to recognize this, it will surely come back to bite him, just as it did Gerald Ford.

  5. bettysdad Says:

    Other than Hillary, I don’t know of any white politicians that are called by their first names.

    It’s demeaning and offensive.

  6. Again Says:

    thanks for your post, Steve

    It would look vindictive

    as i’ve read this, i thought “vindictive? How to distinguish that from the necessary quest for justice?”

    so thanks for the following words…

    And to be honest, there is something to be said for the idea of not wanting to “criminalize” politics.

    just a quote

    The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first. - Thomas Jefferson


    Along with any punitive actions there must be a radical change in the laws and structures that allowed this to occur in the first place.

    yes - what is often forgotten about the “rule of law” is, that it is not a value in itself: it must be controlled by justice and the “High Hopes” of democracy (Under the laws of nature, all men are born free - Jefferson), despite the fact, that this might be the toughest task on Earth:

    Therefore [individual citizens] have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring” - Nuremberg War Crime Tribunal, 1950

    or in clearer words:

    Bad law is the worst sort of tyranny. - Edmund Burke

  7. FreeDem Says:

    Do we really want to get into a position where every time there’s a turnover in party control of the White House, the new guys go on a scavenger hunt looking for things to prosecute the old crew for?

    This has already happened and in spades, but only in one direction. Ask Don Siegelman, ask why the US Attorney firings, ask why the Gary Condit mess, the hounding of Clinton even after he left office, the Acorn Raids, and so on ad nauseum.

    Look at the precedents that Bush used for his divestments of the rule of law and think what a new “Bush” or President Palin will have to choose from as precedents. Acorn goes through extraordinary lengths to insure legal compliance, not just because they are good guys, but because they are well aware that they will likely have to justify every nuance of what they do.

    Until the Gang Of Pirates feel the need to act within the legal framework, they will take ever bolder steps beyond it, and civilization will be damaged all the worse. If torturing people removes us from the moral authority to complain about others who torture, how can we suggest that a monster of another nation should face justice, if we cannot reign in our own monsters.

  8. Larkrise Says:

    FreeDem, you are totally correct. If we do not make it absolutely clear to the world that we will not tolerate nor overlook those actions of a previous administration that have clearly violated the law; then we have no moral standing to demand justice for our citizens abroad. We have no moral standing to demand of others that they do as we say, and not as we do.

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