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The shocking truth about the ‘Scooter’ scandal

Republicans and Democrats are obsessively debating the fate of Lewis Libby because they have nothing of substance to say about Iraq.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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President George W Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, former chief aide to vice-president Dick Cheney, has caused a storm of controversy in Washington, DC.

Last week, after months of speculation, Bush issued his own verdict on his former White House ally. The president described the 30-month sentence given to Libby as ‘excessive’. Using his presidential powers, he reduced Libby’s jail time to zero – though he stopped short of granting him a full pardon. Yet the furore that has accompanied Libby’s case, and now the commuting of his sentence, has little to do with any criminal activity and everything to do with the inability of Republicans and Democrats to say anything meaningful or principled about the war in Iraq.

The Libby case sprung from the revelation that Valerie Plame, wife of former US diplomat Joseph Wilson, was a CIA agent. In 2002, Wilson was sent to investigate claims that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Niger. He found there was little or nothing in the story – and yet, President Bush specifically mentioned the Niger-uranium claims in his State of the Union address the following year. On 6 July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled ‘What I Didn’t Find in Africa’, in which he accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the threat from Iraq. As part of their rebuttal of Wilson’s criticisms, the Bushies revealed his wife’s Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent; the information was illegally leaked. The ensuing investigation failed to discover who was responsible for the Plame leak, but Libby was convicted of misleading both the FBI and the grand jury about exactly when he had found out that Plame was an agent.

Democratic presidential hopefuls were the first to slam Bush’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence last week. Hillary Clinton was ‘incensed’ with the president for allowing ‘cronyism and ideology [to] trump competence and justice’. Barack Obama charged the administration with placing ‘itself and its ideology above the law’. Former senator John Edwards lamented that ‘equal justice in America took a serious blow today’. As Senate majority whip Dick Durbin pointed out, ‘even Paris Hilton had to go to jail’.

While Democrats were incensed, many Republicans voiced a sense of relief that the former White House aide would not face a jail term. Since March, when Libby was first convicted, Republican loyalists have implored the president to do the ‘decent thing’ and pardon Libby. Indeed, there is such a strength of feeling about the Libby case amongst party hardliners that support for Libby has become de rigueur for all those hoping to win the party’s 2008 presidential nomination. Rudy Giuliani, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination who was famously tough on crime when mayor of New York, called Libby’s 30-month sentence ‘grossly excessive’, a view shared by other Republican hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.

Whatever the Democrats might say, Bush’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence is less the product of a strong-willed and cocksure presidency and more a desperate act intended to shore up some support amongst the party faithful. Bush poses as a latter-day Solomon, but in truth his actions in the Libby case were a compromise born out of indecision and incompetence. Poll after poll has shown that the public wanted Libby to serve his time – on the other hand, Republican loyalists wanted a full pardon for a man they felt had ‘taken one for the team’. Thus, by commuting Libby’s sentence but refusing to pardon him, Bush has managed to alienate both the wider electorate and many within his own party.

Bush has failed to use the Libby issue as a focus for unity within the Republican party. Intervening to help Libby was never going to be popular in the country at large, but it could have given a shot in the arm to the Republican party’s conservative and faithful core. At a time when Republicans are divided over immigration reform, lack of progress in Iraq and with no obvious sense of direction or future, helping Libby could have rallied the party around something – and that was clearly Bush’s intention. Yet commuting the jail term rather than pardoning Libby has caused consternation amongst the very people Bush was trying to appease.

Many conservatives believe that the president failed to deliver for their guy. Speaking under condition of anonymity, a Washington conservative who is close to Libby told the Washington Post: ‘A lot of people are going to be bitter about this… People are happy that he’s not going to jail, but this is not what people were hoping for.’ (1)

The Wall Street Journal went further: ‘Mr Bush’s commutation statement yesterday is another profile in non-courage…. Mr Libby deserved better from the president whose policies he tried to defend when others were running for cover. The consequences for the reputation of his administration will also be long-lasting.’ (2) Far from boosting the president’s moral authority, if only among his core supporters, commuting Libby’s sentence has made the president look desperate and ineffectual.

Meanwhile, the Democrats can hardly claim to have captured the moral high ground in the Libby matter. The shrill self-righteousness currently emanating from Democrats does not hold up to scrutiny. As conservatives have been quick to point out, the Clinton administration of the 1990s employed double standards when it came to presidential pardons. Clinton pardoned numerous felons, friends and political contributors (click here for a full list), including Marc Rich, a man indicted in a federal court for evading more than $48million in taxes. Claims abounded that Rich bought his pardon through his ex-wife’s campaign contributions to the Clinton political war chest.

The founding fathers recognised this potential for presidents – of all persuasions – to misuse their powers. With remarkable foresight, George Mason (1725-1792), the father of the Bill of Rights, argued in favour of providing the House of Representatives with the power of impeachment because a president might use his pardoning power to ‘pardon crimes which were advised by himself’.

But the Democrats are not merely guilty of hypocrisy on this one. The passions aroused in the Libby case show just how much the Democrats and Republicans have allowed political debate to shrivel and wilt in recent years. Both sides are using the Libby case as a cover for their lack of political vision or conviction. Just as a pardon for Libby might have provided a boost to Republican loyalists, so his earlier conviction was seen as a major victory for core Democrats. The fate of Libby has taken on a significance for both parties that is far greater than anything he actually did. As Democratic leader Harry Reid said, the conviction was ‘the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war’.

This gets to the heart of the Libby obsession. The two parties have found themselves unable to have a principled debate about the war. As a result, side issues related to the war have taken on a disproportionate importance. In another age, Libby would barely warrant a mention. Ordinary people outside the Washington Beltway would struggle to remember what exactly he did, and why his case assumed such national significance. As Stephen Hess, presidential historian at the Brookings Institute, explained to ABC News, right now ‘it may look like Libby is awfully big, but in fact it’s Iraq that is awfully big. Libby was just one person who was going down on the sword for the administration’s position on Iraq.’ (3)

Scooter Libby has assumed political importance because he is one of the few tangible proxies through which different perspectives on the Iraq war can be expressed. Calling for Libby’s conviction, and gloating over his fate, is one way that Democrats can dissociate themselves from Bush’s policy in Iraq. Unable, and unwilling, to articulate a clear anti-war line on Iraq, the Democrats instead chase after individual officials who lied over the war and hope that the punishment of such individuals will win the Democrats a few cheap points on the Iraq issue. At the same time, the Bushies have rescued Libby from prison because his imprisonment would have stood as an indictment of their tactics over Iraq. As Iraq descends further into chaos and slaughter, Bush officials would rather not talk about it – but they hope that by defending ‘their man’, they have shown that they remain committed to their record on Iraq.

Libby represents a clear difference, a clear line separating the parties. With Democrats baiting for Libby’s scalp, Bush could no more leave Libby to rot in jail than he could call for US troops to leave Iraq. He had to act. Bush might not be able to defend his policies in Iraq, but he can, with a stroke of a pen, do something to defend his Scooter.

Helen Searls is managing editor of Feature Story News, an international broadcast news agency. She lives and works in Washington, DC.

Previously on spiked

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Helen Searls noted how the bitterness of the campaign was in inverse proportion to the political differences between the candidates, and how the withdrawal of his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court revealed Bush’s loss of direction. Brendan O’Neill showed how weapons inspectors had become a crutch for the anti-war movement. Mick Hume argued he was anti-intervention but not anti-war. Or read more at spiked-issues War on Iraq and USA.

(1) A Decision Made Largely Alone, Washington Post, 3 July 2007

(2) Bush and Libby, Wall Street Journal, 3 July 2007

(3) Democrats turn up heat over Libby, ABC News

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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