It will be interesting to see whether the press plays up Obama's influence on lawmakers, or if anti-Lieberman Democrats blame Harry Reid, or blame weak-kneed Senate Democrats instead of Obama.
It's not just the Lieberman thing that will produce plenty of fireworks for the media to play up, of course. The pace of the closure of Gitmo, the disposition of the detainees from Gitmo and the secret prisons, the pace of the withdrawal from Iraq, and the most currently, whether or not Obama will investigate and try Bush administration officials for war crimes.
About that, Paul Campos says:
Prof. Campos believes it's "politically intelligent" to move full speed ahead with planning for war crimes investigations because that would force Bush to pardon his co-conspirators.
Prof. Bok proposes an independent counsel "with an unimpeachable reputation for wisdom, rectitude, and non-partisanship."
As a lawyer, as a human being, of course I think Campos and Bok are right: Bush administration officials - including the President himself- are likely guilty of the war crime of torturing prisoners. (Also, officials involved in the planning and deceptive marketing of the invasion of Iraq also probably committed crimes against peace.) Normatively, I say, frogmarch!
So what do Democratic leaders think of the idea of Obama trying Bush officials for war crimes?
"These things are not going to happen," said Leahy, D-Vt.
Descriptively, I agree with that, too. It's an accurate prediction of what is going to happen. Our government committed the kind of crimes that we gave out life sentences for at Nuremburg, and our government is going to not punish those who committed them. Why not?
First of all, both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit in the crimes Bush committed. Congress would be a fact witness. If Obama investigates administration officials, one of the first questions that will come up is what the members of Congress on key oversight committees knew and when they knew it. If the acts of those Bush officials were criminal, then the Congress is an accessory, to the extent that it knew what was going on.
You might say, good. Let the chips fall where they may. If investigations into Bush-era war crimes reveal a conspiracy of silence (at least) throughout Washington, then Obama will have done us all a service.
There are a number of responses to this: Even on its own merits, Obama pursuing war-crimes trials would not have the effect that we'd like. It is unlikely to deter future war criminals. There will be no convictions, not least because Bush is likely to issue a blanket pardon prior to his leaving office, but also even in the absence of pardons because proving the requisite intent would be a frustrating undertaking. It's also unlikely, with the threat of life imprisonment hanging over their heads, that targets of the investigation will tell what really happened. There will be some revelations proven, but mainly what we'll end up with are many, many allegations being made that end in acquittals. Is that worth it?
Speaking of whether its worth it, what are the opportunity costs of Obama pursuing this? It would make Clinton's focus on gays in the military look like sheer genius by comparison. Literally nothing else on Obama's agenda would get done in the first year, perhaps ever. Congressional cooperation on a whole host of initiatives would evaporate. The media would focus on the investigation of charges against uniformed military personnel, which Republicans would seize on to paint Democrats as being zealously anti-military. The fight would cause Obama's public support to drop like a rock, as people asked why he was spending all this time looking at things in the past. Congressional Democrats would be slaughtered in the midterms. Pursuing a fruitless quest for legal punishment would be an enormous gift to the people lining up to oppose the eventual rollout of universal health care. It would be fatal to the broader liberal economic, social and foreign policy agenda. Is that worth it?
A larger point: What we're really talking about here is not holding specific individuals criminally liable for Bush's policies. What we're really talking about is an indictment of the political class generally. While I'd love it if a popular, crusading President could ride into the White House and successfully hold the entire crowd responsible, it's not realistic. It's not the President's job to reform the entire mindset of D.C. That is the people's job. That's our job. It's not a question of whether Obama is up for the task, because it won't matter if he is if we're not. And guess what? We're not.
The liberals who are screaming now about the priorities of the incoming administration are just exposing what incompetents they are at politics. The fact that they can't express their outrage over things we can't change in the short term and then acknowledge them as such and move on to things we can demonstrates their uselessness. The problem again is that liberals have built up a self-concept during the years Bush was in the White House. That self-image is one of principle above politics. Liberals never had to engage in the thinking about priorities and capabilities when discussing the White House because Bush was so bad. That atrophied the reflexive understanding that something being good didn't automatically make it your policy goal, because with a supine Congress there was no opportunity to make the trade-offs necessary to accomplish policy goals.
Absolutely. Descriptively, this is exactly right. No one fears liberal bloggers, except in marginal cases, because they're ineffective. If you want to change things, you need to get organized and become effective. And to do that, you have to understand what is possible and what is not in politics. Otherwise, you're useless.