President Barack Obama. (Photo: Gerald Herbert / AP)
In the wake of Sen. Patrick Leahy's (somewhat) surprising and determined call for a Truth Commission to investigate the abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration, the Obama administration has been - to many progressives and those on the left of center - disturbingly silent. It's safe to say that the president's less-than-forceful position on the issue has been a source of intense criticism and skepticism from the left about the president's sincerity regarding his claims to promote a new era of transparency and accountability in American politics.
These concerns reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the president's perspective as well as his role. A Truth Commission is a serious matter. In societies overcoming severe oppression or wrongdoing, Truth (or Truth and Reconciliation) Commissions can serve a critical role in healing the wounds wrought by the injustices and can promote much-needed trust, goodwill and reconciliation between the various parties. Peru, South Africa, Morocco and East Timor are just a few of the places where TRCs have helped their societies heal and have facilitated reform by acknowledging past wrongs and ensuring that the horrors of history will not be repeated.
Night after night, on radio talk shows, disgruntled, self-identified progressives call in to inform the host and her audience that we (the American people) can - in fact - "walk and chew gum at the same time" (a response to the argument on the part of some Obama defenders that now - in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades - is simply not the right time to focus our energies on a task of this magnitude - that such an effort would be an irresponsible distraction). Those folks, many of whom, frankly, invoke images of villagers wielding torches and pitchforks, are sadly missing the point.
For starters, the Obama administration has taken as its primary goal the mission of reconciliation, not retribution. Although his efforts have been thus far frustrated by a small but dogmatic segment of the Republican Party, Obama is, in the truest sense, a unifier. It is simply not the style - politically or personally - of this president to seek the same sort of "justice" desired by the pitchfork-wielding villagers. In the mind of this president (I imagine, anyway) emphasis on punishing wrongdoers runs the risk - especially in this very politically contentious climate - of only promoting divisions and inflaming precisely the wrong emotions necessary for a culture of healing - namely, anger, hostility and the desire for vengeance. To wit: one caller to a progressive radio show stated (apparently oblivious to the irony) that "Bush should be publicly shamed." Surely this person - and others like him - do not seriously believe that the appropriate response to the culture of impunity we've been subject to for the past eight years is the subsequent creation of a culture of retribution.
This is not to say that the president does not hold a high regard for the rule of law, or that Bush and the others should not be held accountable for their misdeeds - which in some cases, appear to rise to the level of crimes against humanity. To the contrary - and this brings me to my second point - the rule of law can only truly be applied in an environment that is as independent from political motive as possible. If Obama were to come out openly advocating the seeking of legal retribution for the crimes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others, it could not but be regarded (accurately, in my view) as a political maneuver. Such an event would degrade the president's legitimacy by rendering his tactics no better than those of the people he would seek to prosecute. While the president certainly can (and should) not hinder the prosecution of his predecessor and his administration should another state (who can use the ICC) or entity (such as an organized group wishing to file a class-action suit against the previous administration for harm to the group as a whole - e.g. taxpayers organization, veterans groups, etc.), it is not the job of the president himself to seek such "justice." Directly punishing their predecessors is something done by tyrants in authoritarian regimes, not by legitimate, democratic leaders in an open society. This is why it was the widely revered cleric Desmond Tutu, rather than the newly elected President Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the conclusion of Apartheid in that country.
As Americans and democratic citizens, we have an obligation to acknowledge the truth about our recent shared past and its present consequences. But this can only legitimately be done by those whose job it is to hold leaders accountable in a democratic society - the people. And it can only justly be motivated by a genuine desire to adhere to the rule of law, not by a desire to seek political retaliation. Otherwise, our collective hope for evolution beyond the stains of our recent past is nothing more than a facade for our complicity in politics as usual.
Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University, where she specializes in political development, quality of democracy and nonviolent struggle.