Bush's Fall Guy

Dick Cheney is angry that Bush didn’t pardon Scooter Libby. He should be—Libby was blamed for lies about the Iraq War he had little to do with.

Former-Vice President Dick Cheney is going on the attack again. His foe, however, isn't the mullahs of Iran or Vice President Joe Biden. Instead, it's somebody else: George W. Bush.

The New York Daily News's Thomas M. DeFrank reports today that Cheney associates say the former veep is "outraged" that Bush refused to pardon Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a leading neocon who was prosecuted by Patrick J. Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame case. In July 2007, Bush had already commuted Libby's thirty-month sentence. For Cheney it wasn't enough. Cheney, we learn, "tried to make it happen right up until the very end," says a Cheney associate. But Bush, who became increasingly disaffected with Cheney during his second term, spurned his repeated pleas to remove the blemish from Libby's record.

He made the wrong call. Libby should never have been prosecuted in the first place. The real problem isn't that Bush failed to pardon Libby at the end of his term. Rather, he should have pardoned him long ago. It's to Cheney's credit that he stood by Libby rather than casting him aside.

No, Libby is not a fallen solider on the battlefield, as Fouad Ajami memorably and ludicrously tried to make him out to be. Libby never rose to such heights. He was a crafty bureaucrat at the center of the neocon effort to sell the war. But it wasn't Libby who actually drew up the plans for war or had a voice in major strategic decisions once it went awry. His big role seems to have been feeding the New York Times, via Judith Miller, bogus information about Saddam Hussein's military intentions and capabilities. Ultimately, the administration wanted the stamp of approval of the East Coast establishment, however much it may have pretended to disdain it.

The Libby case itself has never made much sense. Given that Patrick Fitzgerald knew from the outset that it was Richard Armitage, not Libby, who had outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, he should never even have pursued his "investigation." There was, you could say, nothing to investigate. But prosecutors like to prosecute. In the end, Fitzgerald nailed Libby for lying, which was reckless and foolish on Libby's part.

But did it really merit a thirty-month sentence? Hardly. In the end, the Libby trial itself had more of the feel of a show trial than a criminal one.  He was supposed to expiate the original sin of the Iraq War and the conspiracy that the Bush administration had created to carry it out. Never mind that the administration had worked hand-in-glove with the liberal hawks in Congress, whether it was Senators Bob Kerrey or Hillary Clinton, to bolster support for the war. As Richard Cohen pointed out in the Washington Post in June 2007, there was a good deal of hypocrisy involved in the Libby witch-hunt:

For some odd reason, the same people who were so appalled about government snooping, the USA Patriot Act and other such threats to civil liberties cheered as the special prosecutor weed-whacked the press, jailed a reporter and now will send a previously obscure government official to prison for 30 months.

To pin the entire responsibility on Libby, then, never made much sense. Perhaps most distressing is that, in failing to pardon Libby, Bush, in a sense, is pardoning himself from any responsibility for the war or its consequences. Maintaining a pious distance from Libby allows Bush to pretend that he had nothing to do with the whole mess. Morally, Bush made the cowardly decision.

Politically, however, he called it right. A firestorm of indignation would have come down upon Bush, as editorialists across the nation would have denounced him once more for subverting justice. Giving Cheney the brush-off also allowed Bush to get back some of his-to show the vice president, who did not serve him well, that their friendly relations had come to an end. But it seems an odd time to have waited until the very end of his presidency to show that he was his own man.

Now Libby is paying the price, another servant cast off to the side like so much useless ballast by the Bush family. Not an extremely high price, mind you. But the fact that he is paying one at all reflects more badly upon Bush than it does on Libby.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.