Politics & Policy

Pelosi the Political Logjam

War crimes cannot only be war crimes when committed by Republicans.

Forget about where you come down on “torture” or “enhanced interrogations.” The simple fact is that, as a political matter, the drive for a “truth commission” — never mind a war-crimes tribunal — is dead as long as Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House.

And while I oppose the sort of witch hunt Pelosi and her energumens clearly crave, this isn’t necessarily good news.

Pelosi is blocking the road to ritual human sacrifice because there’s ample evidence that she was complicit in what she righteously condemns as torture. Principled opponents of the CIA’s program insist that what Pelosi knew and when she knew it is irrelevant to the substantive issues at stake.

And they are absolutely right.

#ad#If you honestly think waterboarding is criminal torture — I don’t — then Pelosi’s approval of it is unfortunate and indicts her too, but it doesn’t change the fact that crimes were committed. The problem for the Democrats is that politically they cannot excuse their own leader while setting up a Nuremberg trial for Republican officials and honest lawyers who were merely doing their job. War crimes cannot only be war crimes when committed by Republicans.

A relevant example of the Left’s predicament can be found in the defenestration of former Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston during President Clinton’s impeachment. Then speaker-elect, Livingston was exposed for having an affair at precisely the moment the GOP-run House was poised to impeach Clinton for his perjury about adultery with an intern. They couldn’t advance on Clinton with Livingston at the helm. The Clintonites understood this, which is why they implored Livingston not to resign.

But Livingston couldn’t stand in the way of the tide, and did resign. Whether his transgressions were comparable to Clinton’s was a moot point. Politically, Livingston had to get out of the way.

Now Pelosi is in the way. It’s unclear if this was inevitable. If she had handled things differently, she might not have become a roadblock. But in her vanity, she couldn’t admit wrongdoing or allow that the people she’s demonized might not be villains.

Like a driver stuck in the mud, Pelosi has thrown herself into reverse, and every other gear imaginable, trying to get herself out of the ditch. Now everything she does just makes things worse and sprays a fine mist of mud and muck on everyone around her.

When asked if the CIA lied to her, Pelosi not only said yes but upped the ante, accusing the CIA of “misleading the Congress of the United States,” a blockbuster accusation by itself, which she multiplied by adding: “They mislead us all the time.”

The fog of Pelosi’s obfuscation, self-contradiction, and blame-shifting is too thick to parse in this space, but some of the highlights include her claim that, even though she was told of the program, she couldn’t do anything because lawmakers weren’t allowed to object or speak out because of secrecy laws. This is nonsense on its face. And the CIA apparently has leaked to Fox’s Jim Angle that Pelosi knows this isn’t true; she halted a 2004 CIA program she didn’t like simply by complaining about it.

Pelosi is contradicted not only by her own statements and actions but by testimony from former congressman Porter Goss (R., Fla.), who was in the room when Pelosi was briefed, and by President Obama’s handpicked CIA director, Leon Panetta.

Pelosi’s hypocrisy may be serving as a political logjam, but the issues at stake are far more serious. For all the talk about how the Bush White House “politicized” national security, it’s now clear that Pelosi is a purely political creature, and much of the Democrats’ opposition to the war on terror was nakedly partisan (a point underscored by Obama’s unfolding embrace of Bush-era policies, such as his recent reversal on military tribunals).

Indeed, one of Pelosi’s excuses is that she couldn’t be distracted by speaking out against what she believes to be criminal torture because it was more important to win back a Democratic majority — and become speaker. And, let the record show, Pelosi & Co. had no objection to selective CIA leaks when they undermined President Bush or the war effort. It’s only when the CIA’s testimony corrupts Pelosi & Co.’s simplistic moral narrative that the CIA becomes a nest of liars.

If the Bush administration made mistakes or committed crimes fighting the war on terror, those errors were far more bipartisan and systemic than the witch hunters want to acknowledge. A real truth commission might illuminate that fact. But that’s the last thing Pelosi ever wanted. Meanwhile, Republicans clamoring for her scalp might ponder what they’ll get if they succeed in forcing the Democrats to throw Pelosi over the side.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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