It’s been more than five years since Dick Cheney left the White House and nearly eight years since Donald Rumsfeld was booted from the Pentagon. With the obvious exception of George W. Bush himself, no two men were more responsible for the United States’ disastrous and criminal invasion of Iraq, as well as its embrace of a counter-terrorism model built on the twin barbarities of indefinite detention and systematic torture. In the years that have passed since their departure from public office, both men have released best-selling memoirs, made countless media appearances and no doubt added substantially to their already considerable wealth.
In fact, to get a real sense of just how little these men have had to pay for their sins, consider three recent examples.
One is a recent comment from Dick Cheney, delivered in public — not in private, not on background, not via unknown insiders with intimate knowledge of the former vice president's thinking, but in public — about whether he still supports waterboarding (or torture, as most people besides Cheney tend to call it): "If I had to do it all over again," Cheney said, "I would."
The second is the new documentary, "The Unknown Known," by Errol Morris and about Donald Rumsfeld. Estimations of the film's quality vary, but all reviewers are unanimous in at least one regard: Rumsfeld, as he comes off in the film, truly has no regrets. Asked by Morris if invading Iraq for the second time, causing hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and turning millions more into refugees, was worth it, Rumsfeld shrugs off the question and settles for a fittingly cold and glib answer: "Time will tell.”
The third story is, to my mind, the most disturbing. It's a piece in the New York Times, published Friday, about a third man, a man who ignored warnings of a terrorist attack, plunged his country into two disastrous wars, invaded a sovereign nation without sanction from the United Nations and on false pretexts, signed off on the implementation of a worldwide torture regime, secretly initiated domestic surveillance on an unprecedented scale, oversaw the destruction of one of the world's greatest cities, and cut taxes for, and thwarted regulations against, the Wall Street power-players who destroyed the global economy and consigned millions of people to lives of poverty, unemployment and deferred dreams. That man is George W. Bush, and the article is a puff piece about his kitschy paintings.
Obviously, the fact that these men continue to live charmed lives offends our sense of fairness. But it has a more tangible consequence, too. Consider the state of foreign policy thinking within the Republican Party today. Granted, with the recent ascendance of the relatively isolationist Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP's view of foreign policy is somewhat in flux. But Paul is still an outlier, and a quick glance of the Mitt Romney campaign's foreign policy experts is enough to show that neoconservatives like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and the rest of that ghoulish clique still call the foreign policy shots for national Republicans. Despite their abject failures — both technocratically and morally — Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld remain in good standing with the people who run one of America's only two serious political parties. If Mitt Romney were president right now, with Dan Senor by his side, the United States could be ramping up for war with Iran or Russia, preparing to once again spread freedom from the barrel of a gun as if Fallujah and Abu Ghraib never happened.
There’s next to no chance any of these men will ever be officially held accountable for their crimes. All three clearly harbor no regrets. These are the fruits of belonging to the American elite in an era of widespread inequality, when not only the economy, but many pieces of the state itself, act to reinforce and perpetuate the divide separating those who have from those who do not.
Of course, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush are hardly the first American war criminals to escape justice. Richard Nixon, in whose administration the former two men served, immediately comes to mind. Henry Kissinger, too. As was the case for Nixon and Kissinger, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld have benefitted from a decision of the political ruling class — and, to a lesser degree, of the general public— that it’s best not to dwell too much on the nastier bits of America’s recent history. Back when some touchingly naïve souls thought it a possibility, President Obama used to dismiss the notion of holding his predecessors accountable for torture by urging America to “look forward.” This was an order that the vast majority of Americans showed themselves willing to follow.
This same dynamic, this resistance on the part of the powerful to hold their fellow elites to account — as well as the general public’s silent acceptance of these different, looser ethical standards — was also a key driver of the government’s response to the financial meltdown of 2008. After the crisis had passed and the Obama administration had begun reconstituting the financial sector (mostly in its prior form, sadly), there were public demands that some of the Wall Streeters responsible be prosecuted for the damage they wrought. But these flashes of public discontent were mostly ignored by the White House, and here we are, five years later, with essentially no Wall Street villain having had to worry about seeing the inside of a jail cell. Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are richer and more powerful than ever.
I’m hardly the first to notice the difference between how not only society, but also the state, treats the powerful and the rest of the public. Salon alum Glenn Greenwald has made the same point, as has MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. But while it's a point well worth repeating, I don't bring it up in order to shed light on the past but rather to sound a warning about the future. Because as bad as accountability norms have already become in the United States, there's ample reason to worry that they're soon to get even worse.
For an example of how this might be, consider the recent, much-talked-about essay in the Wall Street Journal by billionaire industrialist and right-wing donor Charles G. Koch. The piece is an odd one, residing somewhere between a talking-points-filled press release and a list of conservative maxims that are too hoary for all but the dullest politicians and the most thoughtless ideologues (despite his political activities, Koch is much more the latter). It's littered with pablum about liberty and "the principles of a free society," and is defined by the kind of sloppy, lazy thinking that lays claim to "dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom" without acknowledging that, in the real world, disagreements over the proper application of these universally agreed upon values is the essence of democratic politics.
As Koch goes on, however, it begins to make quite a bit of sense, his inability to recognize the basic mechanics of American democracy. It's not merely that he's an unsophisticated and unoriginal thinker (though he certainly is), it's that he truly doesn't understand what democracy even is. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the brief, passive-aggressive section of the essay in which Koch defends himself against unnamed "collectivist" bullies. Responding to a fusillade of criticism sent his way by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Koch complains that "collectivists" reject "a free and open debate" and "strive to discredit and intimidate opponents" like himself with "character assassination," just as "so many despots" and Saul Alinsky did before. (Small consolation, I suppose, that Koch is self-aware enough not to actually call his opponents Hitler, choosing instead to merely make the implication.)
Beyond his comically exaggerated sensitivity, what Koch's mini jeremiad shows is that the man can't quite fathom the idea that free speech is not the same thing as freedom from critical speech. At no point in his many attacks has Harry Reid — or any other Democrat of significance, for that matter — said anything about Koch's private life or soul. Throughout, the criticism has been directed toward his politics and the groups he pays to promote them. Reid has said that Koch wishes to establish a political status quo that shields his power and wealthy from scrutiny or competition. Reid cannot authoritatively speak to what goes on inside Koch's brain, but his interpretation of Koch's motives is hardly outside the realm of acceptable discourse in American politics. Keep in mind that ours is an era in which politicians malign the the poor as having bad values, bad habits, bad families and bad minds. People infinitely less influential than Charles Koch, in other words, routinely suffer much worse.
Then again, Koch, in so many ways, isn't like most people. Unlike most people, he can directly reach any Republican politician in the country by simply picking up the phone. Unlike most people, he can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on misleading attack ads and cynical, quixotic campaigns to persuade young people to forego health insurance. Unlike most people, he can take advantage of Citizens United in order to funnel countless millions through shadowy outside groups, largely obscuring his political activities and denying Americans the right to know whose interests are being represented when a politician swears to fight higher taxes on the wealthy and roll back regulations on industrial pollution. Unlike most Americans, Koch can now take advantage of McCutcheon, the Supreme Court's sequel to Citizens United, which lifted aggregate caps on political donations and took us one more step closer to having no limits whatsoever on how America's wealthiest citizens can use their largesse to influence the political process.
And that, from all appearances, is how Koch and his ilk like it. With Republicans in Congress stymying any attempt to make political donations transparent, so people at least can follow the money, and with the conservative Supreme Court widely considered to be far from finished destroying campaign finance law from within, Koch can rest easy knowing that his power will remain not only overwhelming but also little understood. He can go on supporting politicians who thwart Medicaid expansions one minute and funding outside groups who castigate Obamacare for not covering more people the next. He can keep bankrolling anti-Obamacare ads that stretch the truth so thin as to render it translucent. He can keep polluting our air, contaminating our water and destroying our environment without having to even pay for the privilege.
He can keep being unaccountable.