Obama Should Stand Against Prosecutions
By David S. Broder
Sunday, April 26, 20
If ever there were a time for President Obama to trust his instincts and stick to his guns, that time is now, when he is being pressured to change his mind about closing the books on the "torture" policies of the past.
Obama, to his credit, has ended one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States.
He was right to do this. But he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government. And he was right when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats who devised and justified the Bush administration practices.
But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more -- the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps -- or, at least, careers and reputations.
Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.
Obama has opposed even the blandest form of investigation, a so-called truth commission, and has shown himself willing to confront this kind of populist anger. When the grass roots were stirred by the desire for vengeance against the AIG officers who received contractual bonuses from government bailout funds, Obama bought time by questioning the tactic. Quickly the patently unconstitutional 90 percent tax the House wanted to slap on those bonuses was forgotten.
The torture issue is much more serious, and Obama needs to take it on himself, as he started to do -- not pass the buck to Attorney General Eric Holder, as he seemed to be suggesting in his later statements on the issue.
Obama is being blamed by some for unleashing the furies with his decision to override the objections of past and current national intelligence officials and release four highly sensitive memos detailing the methods used on some "high-value" detainees.
Again, he was right to do so, because these policies were carried out in the name of the American people, and it is only just that we the people confront what we did. Squeamishness is not justified in this case.
But having vowed to end the practices, Obama should use all the influence of his office to stop the retroactive search for scapegoats.
This is not another Sept. 11 situation, when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed. We had to investigate the flawed performances and gaps in the system and make the necessary repairs to reduce the chances of a deadly repetition.
The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places -- the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department -- by the proper officials.
One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has -- thankfully -- made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?
That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice.
Suppose that Obama backs down and Holder or someone else starts hauling Bush administration lawyers and operatives into hearings and courtrooms.
Suppose the investigators decide that the country does not want to see the former president and vice president in the dock. Then underlings pay the price while big shots go free. But at some point, if he is at all a man of honor, George W. Bush would feel bound to say: That was my policy. I was the president. If you want to indict anyone for it, indict me.
Is that where we want to go? I don't think so. Obama can prevent it by sticking to his guns.
The Breaking of the President
By David Broder
Washington Post, October 7, 1969.
If there are any smart literary agents around these days, one of them will copyright the title "The Breaking of the President" for the next big series of nonfiction best-sellers. It is becoming more obvious with every passing day that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon B. Johnson's authority in 1968 are out to break Richard M. Nixon in 1969.
The likelihood is great that they will succeed again, for breaking a President is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time around. Once learned, the techniques can readily be applied as often as desired - even when the circumstances seem less than propitious. No matter that this President is pulling troops out of Vietnam, while the last one was sending them in; no matter that in 1969 the casualties and violence are declining, while in 1968 they were on the rise. Men have learned to break a President, and, like any discovery that imparts power to its possessors, the mere availability of this knowledge guarantees that it will be used.
The essentials of the technique are now so well understood that they can be applied with little waste motion. First, the breakers arrogate to themselves a position of moral superiority. For that reason, a war that is unpopular, expensive, and very probably unwise is labeled as immoral, indecent, and intolerable. Critics of the President who are indelicate enough to betray partisan motives are denounced (That for you, Fred Harris.) Members of the President's own party who, for reasons perhaps unrelated to their own flagging political careers, catapult themselves into the front ranks of the of the opposition are greeted as heroes. (Hooray for Charley Goodell.)
The students who would fight in the war are readily mobilized against it. Their teachers, as is their custom, hasten to adopt the students' views. (News item: The Harvard department of biochemistry and molecular biology last week called for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.)
Next, a New England election (the New Hampshire primary is best but the Massachusetts Sixth Congressional District election will do as well) surprisingly shows that peace is popular at the polls. The President's party sees defeat staring it in the face unless it repudiates him, and the Harris poll promptly comes along to confirm his waning grip on public trust. The Chief Executive, clearly panicky, resorts to false bravado and says he will never be moved by these protests and demonstrations, thus confirming the belief that he is too stubborn to repent and must be broken.
And then, dear friends, Sen. Fulbright and the Foreign Relations Committee move in to finish off the job.
All this is no fiction: it worked before and it is working again. Vietnam is proving to be what Henry Kissinger once said he suspected it might be -- one of those tragic, cursed messes that destroys any President who touches it.
That being the case, any President interested in saving his own skin would be well-advised to resign his responsibility for Vietnam and publicly transfer the assignment of ending the war to Congress or the Vietnam Moratorium Committee or anyone else who would like to volunteer for the job.
But he cannot. And that is the point the protesters seem to overlook. Assume that they and the President are both right when they assert the time has come to end this war. Assume that the protesters know better than the President how to do so -- despite the conspicuous absence of specific alternatives to the President's policies in their current manifestos.
There is still a vital distinction, granting all this, to be made between the constitutionally protected _expression of dissent, aimed at changing national policy, and mass movements aimed at breaking the President by destroying his capacity to lead the nation or to represent it at the bargaining table.
The point is quite simple. Given the impatience in this country to be out of that miserable war, there is no great trick in using the Vietnam issue to break another President, you have broken the one man who can negotiate the peace.
Hanoi will not sit down for secret talks with the Foreign Relations Committee. Nor can the Vietnam Moratorium's sponsors order home a single GI or talk turkey to Gen. Thieu about reshaping his government. Only the President can do that.
There is also the matter of time. It is one thing to break a President at the end of his term, as was done last year. It is quite another thing to break him at the beginning, as is being attempted now.
The orators who remind us that Mr. Nixon has been in office for nine months should remind themselves that he will remain there for 39 more months -- unless, of course, they are willing to put their convictions to the test by moving to impeach him.
Is that not, really, the proper course? Rather than destroying his capacity to lead while leaving him in office, rather than leaving the nation with a broken President at its head for three years, would not their cause and the country be better served by resort to the constitutional method for removing a President?
And what a wonderful chapter it would make for Volume 2 of "The Breaking of the President" series.