An Iraqi court sentenced the journalist who threw a shoe at President George W. Bush to a three year prison term yesterday. The sentence is apparently meant as a deterrent to demonstrators who might otherwise be tempted to imitate Muntazer al-Zaidi. The incident prompted a flurry of discussion and debate in the United States over the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place. Over the years, the American public has definitely soured on the Bush Administration’s rationale for war. With Obama having now set a timetable for removing combat forces from Iraq, some might prefer that the government simply move on. But on the other side of the debate, there is talk of investigating whether Bush fabricated the reasons behind the invasion, and how his administration flouted the Constitution and the rule of law to get its way after the events of 9/11. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy wants a full scale investigation with the possibility of prosecution, and noted investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is divulging information that only accentuates the suspicion that the Bush Administration conducted itself in ways that would be impeachable were it still in power today.
There are no precedents in American history for the prosecution of a former president. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon following the latter’s resignation on account of the Watergate scandal prevented the American political system from completing its due process. To be fair, many former Nixon aides were prosecuted and were sent to jail. But they were indicted while the Nixon Administration was still in office. Nixon avoided a similar fate after leaving office thanks to Ford’s pardon. At the time, Ford said he wanted to end a “long national nightmare.” Ford arguably lost the presidency because of this decision, but life went on and some reforms were enacted regarding campaign financing. The Office of the Special Prosecutor was given life and has continued to play a role in future administrations, the most notable being the investigation of President Clinton by Ken Starr. With Bush out of office and his tenure relegated to the status of a bad memory, it is fair to ask: Does the American public want a “truth and reconciliation” commission to investigate the alleged crimes of the last administration? Does it want former Bush officials, like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez, Libby, Rove and others brought before the courts and sentenced like the Madoffs of the financial world. My feeling is that Americans are curious, but would prefer to move on. President Obama may be in that camp.
That said, we know with increasing certainty that the Bush Administration lied about and hyped (and maybe fabricated) the evidence to justify its decision to go to war in Iraq. That Saddam Hussein is no longer in power and alive may justify the war to the Bush surrogates, but the American system of justice is such that the public would prefer being assured that future presidents will respect their oath of office. We know the former administration violated civil rights and engaged in torture outside the boundaries of the law. Americans were appalled at that, and future revelations may infuriate not only civil libertarians but also the public at large. I believe the more we hear, the more we will want Senator Leahy to proceed and investigate. And yes, I believe it may lead to criminal prosecutions. I know that with a serious recession going on, we may want to ask ourselves whether we really want the spectacle associated with putting former politicians on trial. But the American dream and American ideals go beyond the mood or the humour of the day. They are based on the rule of law, respect for basic human rights and the Constitution, the very things for which so many have fought and died in history. That alone is justification to investigate—and, if need be, to prosecute.