Its worth reviewing briefly past presidential impeachments. The only two presidents formally impeached and tried by the Senate were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Johnson assumed the presidency after Lincolns assassination and inherited a bitter and divided country. The articles of impeachment against Johnson were purely political, rooted in the heated issues of racism, slavery and reconstruction following the Civil War. Johnson was exonerated by the Senate, although by a mere one vote.
The impeachment of Clinton was no less politically motivated. It centered about Clintons sexual escapade in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, an act which was extremely irresponsible, but was never considered grounds for impeachment itself. However, the civil lawsuit against Clinton for sexual harassment by Paula Jones opened up the opportunity for the Jones lawyers to probe Clintons sexual past, whereupon he was obligated to testify under oath about his affair with Lewinsky. It is here that the Republicans in the House seized upon Clintons evasive testimony to charge that he lied under oath. It later surfaced that the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, acted in unethical fashion by colluding with the Jones lawyers to set Clinton up for what Starr hoped would be damaging testimony and grounds for impeachment. Starr and the Republicans won that round but the Senate rejected the charges. Above all, the American people saw through the political charade and continued to support Clinton throughout the impeachment and subsequent trial.
The only impeachment that involved genuine high crimes and misdemeanors was that of Richard Nixon. Nixon was never formally impeached by the full House. He resigned shortly after the Judiciary Committee handed down articles of impeachment against him.
The situation with George Bush and the war in Iraq is different. The chaos, death and devastation we witness there daily two and half years after the invasion is the direct result of deceit and fraud by the President of the United States. No reasonable person can conclude otherwise. So how can we argue that Bush is not deserving of impeachment? The honest answer is we cant. But the agony of impeachment is such that many will find some form of rationalization and denial that will allow them to look away. The ironic truth is that it is easier to impeach a president when there is little at stake for the country. George Bushs crimes are so serious that the prospect of impeachment frightens many, and justifiably so.
I see two major downsides to moving forward with impeachment for Bushs most serious offenses, those related to the Iraq war.
What would a weakened and cornered George Bush do? Would he move to confront Iran and Syria with military force, to gain an upper hand in his capacity as commander in chief, the one area of presidential responsibility that Congress is most loathe to challenge? The administrations Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 states that nuclear forces are to be part of new global strike capability to deter and preempt security threats wherever they may arise. The longstanding U.S. position to treat nuclear weapons as a deterrent force has now given way to a new reality, namely, that nuclear weapons might be used in a first-strike against threatening nations or organizations as part of the war on terror. Would a desperate George Bush be tempted to play the nuclear card?
A second concern is the effect on troop morale and performance. It is one thing for Congress to debate the merits of the war, but quite another to impeach the president for his failings as commander in chief while U.S. troops are engaged in combat operations. At the uniformed military level, a change of commanders can be effected immediately. But not so with the president. Impeachment is a slow process. While investigation and inquiry could move forward (e.g., the Conyers House Resolution 635), formal impeachment would almost certainly have to be preceded by an agreed on plan between Congress and the executive branch for removal of troops from Iraq. But in the end, only the president can give this order, and Bush would be expected to play his commander in chief role to full advantage, as hes done all along since 9/11.
So what are we to do? Allow George Bush to run roughshod over the Constitution and the law and continue abusing his office? No, something must be done to reign in a rogue president and to avoid changing the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches that would have serious long range consequences for the United States and the world.
Heres a thought. Congress could go with the Al Capone strategy. Recall that after years of investigation by the FBI, the infamous Chicago gangster was finally charged with income tax evasion. Although Capone was clearly responsible for countless gangland murders, the FBI had no luck in finding anyone willing to testify against him and so had to settle for the lesser charge. Capone was found guilty of tax evasion, and to everyones astonishment, the federal judge sentenced Capone to eleven years in prison.
The analogy to George Bush would be for Congress to similarly limit its prosecutorial ambitions and go for the field goal that is, focus on the secret Bush administration domestic wiretapping program carried out by the National Security Agency. By not challenging the president directly as a failed commander in chief, Congress would allow Bush to maintain full responsibility for the Iraq war, which would serve to lessen any temptations Bush might have to play games with Iraq in order to protect what he must see as his great legacyand legacy it will be, although not as Bush envisions. As impeachment hearings on the domestic surveillance issue advanced, pressure on Bush from Congress and the public to end the U.S. occupation would likely grow.
By this scenario Bush would not face charges of criminal fraud for his deceit in selling the Iraq war. However, it seems increasingly likely that once Bush becomes a private citizen he will face the wrath of the International Criminal Court. According to the Geneva Convention on warfare, the use of fraud in establishing a pretext for invasion of a sovereign nation constitutes war crimes if deaths are involved. Its not hard to imagine Bush unable to leave the U.S. fearing arrest by agents of the ICC, forever barricaded behind razor wire in his Crawford, Texas ranch. In whatever manner Bushworld is dismantled, most will see it as justice, and all Americans can look forward to the integrity of the United States restored to its former place among nations.
Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in the defense sector of the aerospace industry for 22 years. He now teaches in the California Community College system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.