The effects of Obama’s refusal to investigate Bush crimes

Rachel Maddow and Jonathan Turley point out the obvious inconsistency of telling the world that we again are a nation of laws and then protecting the crimes of the Bush era.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

On her show last night, Rachel Maddow reported that “a handful” of unnamed Governors from across the country told her that they favor prosecution of President Bush and other Bush officials if the evidence supports the claim that they committed crimes, and she also said that — in her view — the pressure to investigate and prosecute are growing.   She then had on George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley to discuss the urgent need for prosecutions, and these excerpts from that discussion are ones which not only every establishment media figure, but also many anti-investigation Obama supporters, should read (video is below):

Jonathan Turley:  These are war crimes.  These are special categories. . . . The downside to all the [inauguration] pageantry — and it is certainly  well-deserved — is that it’s important for people who lift their hand in front of that building to understand the difference between the man and the mandate.

And the mandate here, as far as I understood it, is that we were going to have a true change, where people would be held accountable.  And all this talk about civility makes it sound like it’s just simply uncivil to investigate people for war crimes. . . .

All they have to do is say:  “we’re going to allow the law to be enforced.”  That’s not a very difficult thing to say.  But it’s going to be inconvenient.  But principles are always inconvenient.  It’s never a good time for principle. . . .

What I think the new Barack Obama — President Obama — is going to find it very hard to do is go around the world and say:  ”we’re now again a nation of laws,” if the first act he commits as President is to walk away from confirmed war crimes.

Rachel Maddow:  If the administration has confirmed that they tortured people — and they have, they have used the “t” word; they have described what they have done, which is recognized as torture, it is something for which we have prosecuted people — are we literally looking at the possibility where administration officials from this administration cannot travel abroad to the other 145 countries that have signed the torture treaties because they might get arrested?

Jonathan Turley:  Most certainly. The status of George Bush is not that different from Augusto Pinochet. They’ve both been accused of running a torture program.  Outside of this country, there is not this ambiguity about what to do about a war crime.  There are four treaties that make this an international violation.  So if you go abroad, and try to travel, most people abroad are going to view you not as “former President George Bush” — they’re going to view you as a current war criminal.

Rachel Maddow:  And they’re going to view us as an outlaw regime for not arresting him on our own soil. 

Jonathan Turley:  I think so, unfortunately.  A lot is at stake.  

Let’s just repeat two sentences.  Turley:  ”President Obama is going to find it very hard to go around the world and say: ‘we’re now again a nation of laws,’ if the first act he commits as President is to walk away from a confirmed war crime.”   Maddow:  ”And [people around the world] are going to view us as an outlaw regime for not arresting him on our own soil.” 

Americans, like most people, love to overlook their own hypocrisy, so many Americans, including many Obama supporters, won’t view as inconsistent or bothersome: (a) Obama’s attempt to tell the world that “American values are restored and we’re now a nation of laws again” and (b) the U.S. government’s deciding that confessed war crimes committed by its most powerful political leaders should go ignored, unpunished and protected.  

But the painfully obvious contradiction between those words and those deeds will be — as Turley and Maddow point out — easily detected by most of the world, which doesn’t actually believe that America is exempt from the same rules which govern everyone else (only a subscriber to American exceptionalism would tell the rest of the world:  ”unlike you, we Americans have too many important things to do to get caught up with the unpleasantness of holding our political leaders accountable for war crimes”).  As Harper‘s Scott Horton documents, there is an expectation around the world that Bush should be and (one way or the other) will be prosecuted for those crimes:

As the final hours of the Bush presidency tick down, the expectation builds in Europe that Obama will do the right thing. That would, of course, be to prosecute the Bush Administration figures responsible for introducing torture as a matter of formal policy. As they all point out, this is what the United States formally committed to do when it adopted the Convention Against Torture, which was largely the product of American advocacy to begin with.

Those who argue against investigations and prosecutions — no matter where they fall on the political spectrum — are adopting exactly the same mindset that led Bush officials and Bush followers to invade Iraq:  the U.S., and it alone, need not conform to international norms, including those which it has long imposed on others.  Those rules simply aren’t for the United States.

To see yet another perfect distillation of the virtually absolute national media consensus against holding Bush officials accountable for their crimes, savor this new anti-investigation Newsweek column by long-time intelligence community reporter John Barry.  It contains every standard media platitude currently in vogue for defending Bush officials, and for excusing the members of the intelligence community on whom Barry depends for his “reporting.”  But Barry adds to that mountain of Bush-apologizing clichés the accusation that people who believe in the need for prosecutions are simply lying about their real motives:

The call to arms may be seductive; its advocates couch their cries in terms of motherhood and apple pie: transparency, a need for a full accounting, the rule of law. Humbug. This is about vengeance, pure and simple.

To the standard Washington reporter, nothing is more contemptible than those who want to hold political leaders accountable — and that fact is as potent a reflection of how diseased our political culture is, since journalists, in theory, ought to be those leading the crusade for such accountability, not leading the lynch mob against citizens who are demanding it.  Yet since the zombie-like march behind the Leader during the run-up to the attack on Iraq, there hasn’t been a more complete, virtually lockstep consensus among our media class than their vehement opposition to investigating the crimes of our political leaders. 



(Keith Olbermann also delivered a “Special Comment” last night urging Obama to investigate and prosecute).


UPDATE:  I didn’t intend to suggest, with the title, that Obama has already refused to investigate and prosecute.  It refers to what the effects would be if he does refuse.  A better title would probably have been:  ”The effects if Obama refuses to investigate Bush crimes.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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