August 26, 2009

President Obama, Do the Ends Justify the Means?

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  President George W. ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Suppose for a moment that President Obama is correct in his calculation that holding top Bush administration officials, including Dick Cheney, accountable for war crimes and illegal spying on Americans would prevent him from accomplishing his broad legislative agenda. I do not believe this for a second, but let's suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that he's right. He can either pursue his agenda or permit a full investigation of the previous administration, appointing a special prosecutor with the authority to go up the ladder all the way to Bush if supported by the evidence.

Operating under such an assumption, we might be able to construct a cogent argument for "looking forward and not backwards." We could insist that the good accomplished by enacting universal health care, rebuilding our economy, and the other parts of Obama's agenda would outweigh the bad of allowing Bush and Cheney to get away with a multitude of crimes.

Alternatively, we might construct the opposite argument - that Obama's moral and legal obligation to uphold the U.S. Constitution and defend our nation from enemies foreign or domestic requires him to root out the malfeasance of his predecessor, whatever the political cost. We could claim that the positive ends of legislative accomplishments simply cannot justify the means if those means means that Bush and Cheney escape unscathed.

Of course, both arguments fall apart to the degree that they are based on a false assumption. Holding Bush and Cheney accountable would not necessarily render Obama's agenda impossible to enact, nor would forgoing his agenda guarantee criminal convictions.

So yes, I think that Obama's political calculation that he must "look forward" and allow criminals to escape without punishment is a serious mistake that should have devastating political consequences. I will go so far as to say that there is no way I can support a second Obama term if he persists on this course.

It is not about mere retribution, although I will not deny that the thought of Dick Cheney in a prison cell is appealing. Instead, it is about setting the record straight, showing the world that the American people will not tolerate evil done in our name, and setting a precedent for all future administrations. Where would we be today if Nixon had faced no consequences for Watergate? Now where will we be in the future if Bush and Cheney face none for their crimes?

And if you are still hoping that AG Holder will somehow do the right thing when Obama refuses to do so, think again.

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