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The meaning of political scandals

By Lance Selfa | October 21, 2005 | Page 7

OFFICIAL WASHINGTON is abuzz with news of scandals that threaten to topple some of the most powerful politicians in town--from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to top White House aides Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

It would certainly be satisfying to see any of these crooks get hauled off to jail. But if the history of Washington scandals teaches us anything, it's that it's easier to disgrace an individual than to change the system that gave rise their scandalous behavior.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation over a possible White House plan to expose the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame has the Bush administration quaking, if reports in the political press are to be believed. Liberal commentators are beside themselves, anxiously awaiting indictments that, they believe, will place a mark of treason on the White House.

Ostensibly, Fitzgerald is investigating a violation of a highly technical law. In reality, the inquiry is part of the fallout from the U.S. ruling class' failure to make good on its rosy scenario for the takeover of Iraq.

This is the way it works in a political system run by an establishment that controls two political parties differing mainly on the margins.

From the point of view of justice, Karl Rove's trafficking in classified information with favored Washington reporters is the least of this White House's crimes. Launching an unprovoked war on the basis of lies, killing more than 100,000 Iraqis and killing or maiming over 20,000 American soldiers--these are only the highlights of a charge sheet to which Bush and Co. would have to answer if they ever ended up in front of the war crimes tribunal where they belong.

Instead, a scandal that implicates a handful of corrupt individuals allows the system to blame them--while allowing the same policies, or slightly modified versions of them, to continue under new management.

This isn't the first time. Consider the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. At its root, Watergate was a settling of accounts between different wings of the Washington establishment over who would take the fall for the domestic crisis caused by the lost war in Vietnam.

The Nixon dirty tricks campaign that led to the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building started with the White House's obsession with discrediting Daniel Ellsberg, one of the most credible antiwar spokespeople because he came from the national security establishment.

Yet when the House of Representatives impeached Richard Nixon in 1974, it specifically rejected adding his illegal 1971 invasion of Cambodia to the list of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Instead, the Watergate scandal turned on Nixon's misuse of the FBI and CIA to cover up his crimes.

What's important--and worth remembering today--is that Watergate took down the Nixon gang only so that the Washington establishment could regroup and continue with the same policies that were at the root of the scandal.

We can see today just how fleeting were the reforms that Watergate ushered in--from campaign finance laws that today's political operatives laugh at, to a War Powers Act that no president, Democrat or Republican, pays the slightest bit of attention to when deploying U.S. troops around the world.

If Fitzgerald does bring indictments, the Bush White House will be damaged--perhaps fatally. But the beneficiaries of Fitzgerald's investigation, the Democrats, will only take advantage of the scandal insofar as it helps them make gains in Congress in 2006 and win back the White House in 2008.

Remember, the establishment (read: Democratic) critique of the Bush administration's misadventure in Iraq is not that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is illegal and immoral, but that Bush bungled it.

The Democrats may promise to put an end to the Republican "culture of corruption" or to fix the disaster in Iraq. Meanwhile, Democrat-connected lobbyists are planning to get their piece of the action, and the Democratic "national security" experts are drawing up plans to continue the occupation of Iraq.

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