Originally published February 4, 2009, at politicsunlocked.com
Photo by milesgehm; licensed creative commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
The recent executive order issued by President Barack Obama, aimed at opening more presidential records to the public, has renewed discussion of the potential investigation and prosecution of Bush administration officials, including the former President himself.
In its own right, the executive order, geared toward opening presidential records to scholars and journalists, is sound policy aimed at making government “of the people” more accountable.
Prosecution of George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, or other former Bush administration officials would certainly be a colossal mistake.
Prosecuting leaders who make unpopular decisions, instead of removing them from office by electoral vote, undermines the office of the Presidency and the democratic process itself. The belief that such prosecution would be objective, outside politics and justified by the death and destruction in Iraq or detention facilities around the globe, is simplistic.
The decisions of George W. Bush and his administration, in response to 9/11, in protecting the nation’s securitythrough the conduct of foreign wars, through surveillance, investigation, prosecution and detention, were exactly the kinds of profoundly difficult choices that those in high office are required to make. True, they didimpinge upon the rights and freedoms of citizens and treat some non-citizen detainees brutally. And while we may disagree, we should not underestimate the dilemma inherent in such decisions.
The President must lead in the face of rival and enemy nations, competing ideologies, religious and ethnic strife, economic turmoil and natural calamity. At stake is the freedom, prosperity, justice and dignity of not only 300 million Americans, but also that of the nations with whom we cooperate, guide, and in many cases, help protect.
Balancing individual rights and national security is the President’s responsibility. There are counterbalancing institutions of Congress and courts, but they generally exist to provide legislation and oversight, constitutional interpretation and protection of individual rights. It is not perfection we seek, but balance.
Barack Obama expressly campaigned against controversial Bush administration policies on Iraq, detentions and torture. His election represents a shift in policy — a sign that the democratic system is working.
Using civil or criminal courts against Bush administration officials, even in the belief that laws have been broken, will be political and would devastate our governmental system.
The actions of the former President have outraged many, but cannot be equated with the war crimes or genocide for which international criminal laws have been devised.