It was predictable.
Going back in history about 65 years, we find a different picture. The Second World War had come of a bloody, wasteful end and, when the mask was stripped away, we saw the hideousness of Nazism. Photos and film of the death camps, of the ghettos (only just more “humane” than the camps) and of other war crimes washed over the world’s public like a tidal wave of hate, bringing with them, in its turn, hatred of those who had perpetrated them. Voices shouted in a single call for those who had been part of it – no matter how small a part – to be brought to justice and, if guilty, suitably punished. Such fervor exists over the Holocaust and those responsible for it that still today we see it, most notably in the recent extradition of John Demjanjuk, the 88-year-old alleged Sobibor guard to the war crimes trials in Germany.
So how is it that we can, with any good rationale, support Barack Obama in glossing over the alleged crimes against humanity of the Bush Administration?
Even before Obama took office, there was a screaming cry for the prosecution of every member of the Bush Administration, from the President on down, for the illegal activities perpetrated by the Zealots of Orwellianism. Along with a great many other people who saw the previous government as very likely the most corrupt in the history of this country – the true legacy of G. W. Bush, in my opinion – and I called out angrily for the impeachment of he, Cheney, and every other cabinet member that engaged in cronyism, profiteering, fascism and misleading not only the country but a good portion of the entire world. Obama campaigned on a platform of anti-Bushism, for the most part, playing on the discontent and the anger of the public at having been flimflammed by a Texas bumpkin who, at the very least, was manipulated by evil forces (remember his oft-repeated “evil-doers” line?) and, at worst, was a willing part of it himself.
Obama, himself, was angry and said so in many of his speeches. So it was taken fairly for granted that, once in office, he would come down hard on the miscreants and let those of us who clamoured for vengeance have our day. Thus it was with a certain level of dismay and resentment that many people received the news that President Obama has no desire to open an official investigation into the deeds of his predecessors and, as he put it, simply “move on.” Human rights groups, watchdogs, families of those wronged, and those who feel betrayed rose in nearly a single voice in objection, feeling themselves, again, betrayed by the very person they thought would be their political Messiah.
But there, as always, is more than one side to this issue, and those of us who have dreamed of some vague notion of Justice – and, yes, I am one who would love to see Bush, Cheney, et al sitting in the dock confronted with the con sequences of their actions – need to look at those alternative sides and, as the President has said all along, see the bigger picture. There are several arguments for the position Obama has taken, most of the political and some of them practical. As ever, the political takes precedence over all else; the participants are, after all, political people and politics rules the world in which they live.
Right now, from the looks of things, the Democrats are very close to having a controlling majority in the Senate. In the House, the division is 262 Democrats to 178 Republicans which is, still giving the opposing party nearly a third of the votes. Now, this may seem commanding, and, in effect, it is. But, just as Bush campaigned on the lie of being a “uniter, not a divider,” Obama insisted that he wanted to end the partisan divisions in Washington in favor of getting things done. Unlike Bush, however, Obama seems intent on actually doing so.
To do this, Obama has to be – again unlike his predecessor – sensitive to the feelings of the Republicans. If he were to come out in favor of a full disclosure investigation, he might likely immediately find himself without support from a single Republican, not only in Washington, but anywhere in the country. While this may seem inconsequential under the present general dislike for Republicans, it is something that cannot be ignored. Obama still must rely on key Republicans in Congress to get bills through committees and candidates confirmed in appointments. Even with the Supermajority that may occur when Al Franken (eventually) takes office, the Democrats cannot run rough-shod over their down-and-out opponents, if for no other reason than because at some point, the political demographics will inevitably change again and it will be the Republicans wearing the spiked shoes. So it is with political expediency that Obama – and the Democratic Party – must approach this issue. After all, wasn’t it only a few months ago that those of us of more liberal bent were complaining about how we were cut out of the process and the Conservatives were ruling by decree? There is no greater issue, politically, that can so quickly polarize the parties as this one. An investigation would not merely stop at Bush and Cheney, but would touch, arguably, every single person in office or on staff, in at least some small way, in Washington at the time.
Not only that, but there was complacency among many Democrats as well, and to indict those of Republican colors while ignoring those of Democratic would be the same type of corrupt favoritism we endured under those we would like to see hung out to dry.
Let’s add to that the fact that the swing vote in the Senate is Arlen Specter, not the most loyal party-liner in the world. Focus on revenge and it is highly likely that this influential and wizened defector will be alienated and will become a road block rather than a gateway to getting things done.
On the practical side of the argument, we are faced with challenges now that were not apparent until late in the campaign. If any politician – if any leader, in fact – is to be successful, she or he must be flexible and adaptable to the situation. George Patton, upon seeing a ruined roman fort in Northern Africa, commented to one of his aides that fixed fortifications were monuments to the stupidity of man. So it is with rigid political “fortifications.” As (to drop another name) Daniel Schorr put it, any politician who doesn’t change his mind isn’t learning as he goes, and probably doesn’t deserve to lead.
But even discounting the current economic problems – which will be ongoing for some time – and the panic over the H1N1 virus – which will probably be no more than an afterthought in a month or two – there are issues that require undistracted attention. If we are to extract ourselves from Iraq, and, hopefully, Afghanistan, it cannot be done haphazardly. (For one thing, to be callously honest, we would be brining a whole lot of people back to a home where there are not enough jobs to go round anyway.) We ran into a similar problem in the 1970s when, with the resignation of Richard Nixon, there were calls for his indictment as well. One of the issues cited by the experts of the time was that, if a succeeding president were to advocate indictment and prosecution of his predecessor, he would be setting himself up for the same process once his term was completed. In perspective, could Bush have foreseen the events of September 11, 2001, the impetus (whether right or wrong) for the Iraqi invasion? And who knows what events may take control of the Obama Presidency and steer it on a course of possible infractions? Obama is a very intelligent and savvy man – he knows better than to set precedents that may end up engulfing him own future and legacy. One of the things that can work for or against Obama is that, even in the first days of his administration, he has his eye on his legacy; something that usually doesn’t occur to presidents until their last two years in office.
On the other hand there is one argument that, by its sheer weight alone, at least balances out all these others, and that is the obligation for this nation – which sees itself as the upholder of all that is right and decent in the world – to stand for those ideals in reality, not just in words.
How is it we can call ourselves just and a nation of laws when we refuse to try men who have allegedly committed the worst human rights crimes since the Vietnam War?
It is something that I, myself, hold very close and very high in my priorities – one of the reasons for my personal political and social revolution 40-odd years ago. I require my country to lead by example and be true to its self-image, and to permit anything less is an ulcer in my moral stomach that bleeds acid into every portion of my being. To compromise on such an issue, when I have been honored to be a very small part of preservation of Holocaust memory, is a pill that is simply too large to swallow, no matter the practical considerations. Even at the risk of alowing the Nazis a platform from which to perpetuate its philosophy, it was acknowledged that the crimes were so heinous that they had to be prosecuted. While I do not directly compare the Bush Adminstration to the Holocaust or to the Nazi regime, what was done is just as much a crime as is committed in any fabled Turkish prison or any of Saddam Husein's interrogation rooms.
So what are those of my bent to do? We must recognize the realities of our political world, and yet, we must, to be true to ourselves, recognize our own sense of justice. It would seem to be an unsolvable problem.