Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Holder’s decision to conduct investigations on the CIA. See his previous OUPblogs here.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to conduct investigations on the CIA presents a serious dilemma for the Obama White House, which was at pains to point out that Holder’s decision was independently made. I think the White House is being honest here, because these investigations will only be a distraction from health-care reform. The bigger problem thrown into sharp relief here, however, is that democracies’ commitments to justice and the politics necessary to deliver electoral and governing solutions do not always sit happily together.
The pursuit of justice (which is state-sanctioned retribution) is inherently a backward looking process. It most look to the past in order to establish that a wrong was committed. And to put things bluntly, even when properly meted out, justice often offers only cold comfort to whom injury was inflicted. Especially in politics, such returns are slow in the coming, if they come at all.
If the pursuit of justice pulls us back in time, the conduct of politics pulls us into the future. Power today is a derivative of the anticipated store of power tomorrow, which is itself a function of whether today’s promises are fulfilled tomorrow. Politicians (in active service) don’t have time for the past, for they must protect their future. President Obama is looking ahead to the health-care battles to come in the Fall, and he does not want (nor does he need) to be pulled back to rehash a contest with the last administration in which voters already declared him a winner in 2008. Justice and Politics do not go well in this moment, and Obama knows full well that he has more to lose than he has to gain in Holder’s investigation. To stay in office, he must offer a politics of solutions, and not the politics of redemption that his liberal base wants.
Strangely enough, Dick Cheney is on the side of liberal Democrats on this one, at least in the sense that he understands that democratic countries are bad war-makers. The difference of course, is that Cheney believes that democratic ends can be met with undemocratic means (while some liberals believe that war is sport of kings, not democracies). In Cheney’s own words on Meet the Press in 2001: “We have to work the dark side, if you will. Spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world.” Cheney’s thorough-going ends-justifies-means philosophy is revealed in his interview with Chris Wallace. “They looked at this question of whether or not somebody had an electric drill in an interrogation session — it was never used on the individual,” Cheney said of the inspector general’s report. “Or that they had brought in a weapon — never used on the individual.” This cavalier attitude towards undemocratic means stems largely from a very sharp line differentiating “us” and “them” in the neoconservative world-view, a line that takes off from a commitment to protecting the demos in a democracy and a characterization of all others as outsiders to our social contract. This line is imperceptible to the liberal eye fixated on universal justice, which presumes the basic humanity of even a terrorist suspect.
Democrats really want to go for Cheney, but they will have to settle for the CIA; Cheney wants to protect his legacy, but he will have to settle for a proxy war. The politicization of justice and the justiciation of politics are reifiying the turf battles between CIA and FBI, the very cause of the intelligence failures that led to September 11 in the first place. The mere fact that we are airing our dirty laundry in public is already having a “chilling” effect on CIA agents and both Cheney and Holder are complicit in this. Justice and Politics are friends to democracy individually, but we are better off without one of them in this case.