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Obama and the Prosecution of Predecessors


Today’s lead editorial in the WSJ contains this curious sentence:

But at least until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements. This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power.

Actually, this has happened in America — in the first two years of the Eisenhower administration. During the 1952 campaign, John Foster Dulles, who was to be Eisenhower’s secretary of state, fostered the impression that “secret agreements” had been reached at Yalta selling out large chunks of the civilized word into Communist slavery, and that the State Department was full of people who had intentionally facilitated the Communist takeover in China. He does not seem to have believed either of those things, but he gained a lot of traction by encouraging others to believe them. Just take a look at the awful foreign policy section of the GOP convention platform in 1952, which he drafted.

The Republicans rode the conspiracy theories all the way to the White House and a congressional majority.  The chickens came home to roost immediately, in the form of the McCarthy hearings, essentially an attempt to smear and prosecute officials of the previous administration, as well as sitting members of the armed forces and the State Department. Dean Acheson called it “the attack of the primitives,” and despite Eisenhower’s personal opposition to the witch hunt, he had partly brought it upon himself. The shameful spectacle went on for two years, until the GOP lost its Senate majority — which it would not regain until three decades later.

Having served as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, I can think of nobody better suited to hold McCarthy-style hearings than Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Never willing to have a policy disagreement with people when insinuations against their ethics and loyalty play just as well, Leahy was the perfect person to lead the Democrats into a political minefield with his “Truth Commissions” project, just as McCarthy did to Eisenhower. For this reason, I was somewhat disappointed that the idea never got anywhere — the scheme could not have been better designed to backfire, as Obama realized almost from the start.

But there is still hope, as the latest round of torture controversies shows. Obama’s unerring sense of immediate political advantage has led him to adopt two positions that are ultimately incompatible. On the one hand, just like Dulles, he abets the impression that crimes were committed by the previous administration, insinuating that we “lost our moral compass” and that our government abandoned “the rule of law” and that he’s going to restore both. But on the other hand, he realizes that he has nothing to gain from doomed attempts at prosecution (because there really is no case) so he comes up with the rhetorical device of “we must look forward, not backwards.”

The contradiction has angered Obama’s left-wing base. The Left is entirely correct to object that if crimes were committed, “I wanna look forward” is hardly a reason not to prosecute them. By punting the question of prosecuting senior officials over to the Justice Department, Obama hopes to be rid of the vexing issue once and for all. But the move was only a temporary expedient, which enabled Obama to avoid having to choose between (a) defending Bush officials or (b) bringing charges against them.

Obama cannot have it both ways. If he thinks crimes may have been committed, he must investigate and prosecute them — he has taken a constitutional oath to see that the laws are faithfully executed. On the other hand, if he does not think that crimes were committed, then as a matter of both honesty and self-interest, he should stop giving the impression that they were.

Americans have been led to believe that crimes were committed by the Bush administration. They deserve to learn the truth, and that matters more than Obama’s political convenience.


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