If you're an old fart like me, you might remember the Iran-Contra scandal back in the late-1980's. A few years before it broke, Congress discovered a spine and managed to make illegal sending funds to the Contras in Nicaragua. Oliver North and others took a brief from Pres. Reagan to continue support for these drug running terrorists and solicited money from various rich Americans, ultimately getting a windfall from a covert arms shipment to Iran, made at a time we were also providing classified intelligence to Iraq (nothing like playing both ends against the middle in a fruitless war of attrition, I always say, especially when you really don't have a dog in the fight). One of the players in this sleazy little D-grade political thriller was Elliot Abrams, a State Department official ultimately convicted of lying to Congress (back when that was a prosecutable offense). At one point during his rather contentious hearing before the special House-Senate committee empaneled to investigate this tangled mess, he insisted the entire thing was a farce, an effort to criminalize what was nothing more than policy disagreements. This particular framing was picked up by many on the right, and continues to this day. Every time some conservative gets harassed by the media and others that they might just have done something not quite legal in the course of their official duties, it's another example of mean, stupid liberals wanting to make doing conservative stuff illegal. Why do we do it? because we're mean and stupid and liberal, that's why!
Fast forward a couple decades, and we have an entire Administration of Elliot Abrams. Shoot, we have Abrams himself, rehabilitated by George W. Bush, no less. The entire crew is set to ride off in to the sunset, unmourned by an American public exhausted by their desire to have this debacle of Executive mismanagement over and done with. Yet, there are many loose ends, as they say, that need tying up, many questions for which the answers aren't exactly comforting, many deeds that need a closer examination. Pres.-elect Obama has done the Bush Administration a favor and signaled his refusal to investigate with an aim toward prosecuting any alleged criminal conduct on the part of members of the Bush Administration. Many on the left are outraged; there are just some things - like, say, torture, indefinite detention, domestic spying for starters - that need to be brought to the light of day, and those responsible held accountable.
I am, in all honesty, of two minds about this. On the one hand, my fondest dream has been to see Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and many lesser lights of this already-dim group prosecuted in various venues, not least The Hague (having a former President and Vice President extradited to The Netherlands to appear before a war crimes tribunal would most definitely be a victory for real justice). If any group deserved such attention, it is this bunch who have served us so poorly, destroyed so much of our national confidence in the ability of government to actually achieve things of worth, to even do public Administration with a minimal amount of competence.
On the other hand, while I think making such a signal so early and so public has certainly confused a vocal part of Obama's constituency, it might also be part of a deeper game on Obama's part. It is important to remember a couple things. First, many of those calling for investigation with an aim toward eventual prosecution want the kind of open-ended investigation Lawrence Walsh gave us during Iran-Contra. It took years, with the final indictments handed down as Bush 41's term came to a close - Cap Weinberger's indictment in particular was a memorable one - with Presidential pardons hard on their heels. While that was pretty shameless, it should not have been surprising. Such investigations are necessarily lengthy, dealing with millions of pages of documents, memoranda, emails, classified information, and the interview of principles and secondary figures multiple times, sometimes numbering in the hundreds (why else would Oliver North's secretary have to be hauled before a Congressional committee). Obama has to put in place a minimally-functioning Administration on January 20th at noon, and part of that process is getting everyone to play nice, handing over documents, policy statements, email directives and all the rest beforehand. If some mid-level political appointee is afraid there might be something potentially prosecutable in this, that, or the other communique, he or she might just not play along.
At the same time, once all this paperwork and screenwork is gathered together and examined, isn't it just possible - and I say this with more hope than confidence it is true - that someone higher up the food chain might just shout in good Capt. Renault-like tones, "I'm shocked, shocked to discover illegality going on here!" Rather than pursue this or that lead, isn't it at least possible that as specific acts come to light, they will be prosecuted?
Even if this isn't so, we should never forget that the Republicans, elephants that they are, have long memories. Bill Clinton was impeached not only because the Republicans were never satisfied he had won the Presidency outright; he was impeached because, 20 years before, a Democratic Congress had its sights set on Richard Nixon. It was payback. Now, it is true enough, as the example of the Republican treatment of the Clinton Administration demonstrates, that such nasty antics not only distract an Administration from actually doing work. It is also true that, a good prosecutor working long enough and hard enough will manage to find someone somewhere violating the law. When Bush took over, the constant crowing about alleged Bush crimes sounded kind of tinny even to me, a repeat from the left what happened during the eight years of the Clinton Administration. To turn around and start investigating every aspect of the Bush years would take time, resources, and emotional and political energy needed for doing other things, not the least of which is simply executing the laws of the land. Should Republican, by some miracle, win the White House again in the near future, if Obama wasted a whole lot of time and energy investigating and prosecuting every little piece of dirt from the Bush Administration, please know that a new Republican Administration would be dedicated to one purpose and one purpose alone - doing the same to previous Democratic Administrations, only with gusto, flair, and more nasty thoroughness than any Democrat could dream possible. At some point, I think, we have to be realistic enough to accept the fact that, even though there is probably enough evidence in the public record to impanel a dozen grand juries, the political cost might just be too high. It's an ugly reality, to be sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't a reality nonetheless.
Sometimes, I think we have to settle for a kind of minimalist understanding that, yeah, the entire eight years was one long criminal enterprise with a combination of corruption, stupidity, ignorance, and blatant flaunting of the law that was breathtaking in its exuberance. At the same time, it's over, they're gone and this bunch, at least, won't be around to bother us anymore, so let's get some stuff done, and done right. While we're doing that, should we stumble across some evidence - actual evidence (which shouldn't be too hard to find) - that a crime might just have been committed by the Bush Administration ("Shocked, I tell you!"), well then, that's what we have a Justice Department for.
One finale note. I know that Democracy Lover, for one, and others often write about "principles". I am not dedicated to principles in politics, other than actually achieving stuff. Part of what made the Bush years so awful was we had a group of people in charge, in both the Executive and in Congress, who were dedicated to certain "principles" - conservative ideology, to be precise - and simply ignored public disdain and preference as well as the occasional law to achieve ends rooted in these principles. Whether it was the unitary executive or Tom DeLay threatening to subpoena a brain-dead coma patient to "testify" before Congress during the whole Terri Schiavo fiasco, that is what a dedication to principle leads to, in the end. Principles are for people who see nothing wrong with not actually achieving anything other than a moral victory. Politics isn't about moral victories, but real victories.