The Incompetence of Others

Posted by Cutler on January 24, 2007
Foreign Policy Factions, Iraq

I have been content to leave most of the discussion of the “Plame/Libby” case to others, especially National Journal reporter Murray Waas–especially via his blog–and to Swopa over at Needlenose.  For background, check out the Wikipedia entry.

Until the opening day of the trial, the Libby case looked set to be an occasion for critics to celebrate the fact that at least one leading administration official was going to be held accountable for something related to the war in Iraq.  I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, is on trial for perjury.

Now, however, it looks like the trial may shed some light on one major axis of Bush administration factional politics–what Waas calls “an inherent division… between the OVP [Office of the Vice President] and the White House staff.

Here is how Michael Isikoff of Newsweek is reporting the opening of the trial:

Libby, it was widely thought by legal experts, was going to be the good soldier. He would play it safe at his trial in order to preserve his options; mainly, if convicted, to seek a presidential pardon before Bush leaves office.

But no sooner did he start his opening statement Tuesday morning than defense lawyer Ted Wells shocked the courtroom and all but tossed the “pardon strategy” out the window. Seeking to rebut Fitzgerald’s contention that Libby had lied about his knowledge of Plame’s CIA employment in order to save his job with Cheney, Wells shot back: “Mr. Libby was not concerned about losing his job in the Bush administration. He was concerned about being set up, he was concerned about being made the scapegoat”…

[The trial] has raised the prospect that the Libby trial will now turn into a horror show for the White House, forcing current and former top aides to testify against each other and revealing an administration that has been in turmoil over the Iraq war for more than three years

Wells contended, it was Rove—the political strategist—who had to be protected at all costs. He was, Wells said, “the lifeblood of the Republican Party” and the man George W. Bush absolutely needed for the coming re-election campaign. Indeed, after [then-press secretary Scott] McClellan issued a public statement exonerating Rove of any involvement in the leak (a statement that turned out three years later to be false), Cheney and Libby huddled about the matter. McClellan had cleared Rove but at that point had said nothing about Libby, leaving the implication that Libby had leaked but Rove hadn’t. Cheney personally wrote a note, an excerpt of which Wells read to the jury and highlighted by displaying on an audio-visual machine during his opening statement: “Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others,” Cheney’s note read.

The translation, according to Wells: The vice president was not going to allow Karl Rove to be protected and Libby to be sacrificed…

The opening statements underscored what many had already suspected: that Cheney—who is slated to be called to testify by the defense—will be a crucial witness in the trial…

Let the shooting begin.

Cheney does not appear likely to hang Libby out to dry.  Here is a part of the transcript of a recent Cheney interview with Fox News.

WALLACE: Your former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, goes on trial this coming week on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury…

CHENEY: He’s a friend. He’s a good man. He is one of the finest individuals I’ve ever known…

WALLACE: Is he honest?
CHENEY: I believe he’s one of the more honest men I know. He’s a good man. And I obviously appreciate very much his service on my staff over the years and have very high regard for him and his family…

WALLACE: Given the fact that it now turns out that Libby wasn’t the one who first leaked the name of Valerie Plame, what do you think of the fact that he’s the only one who’s being prosecuted in this case?

CHENEY: I have strong views on the subject, but I’m not going to talk about it…

WALLACE: But there’s nothing that you have heard, nothing that you have read that shakes your confidence in Scooter Libby’s integrity?

CHENEY: That’s correct.

That would seem to raise the specter of an open-air split between Cheney and the White House.

I have suggested that there are probably several layers of substantive, policy elements to this split, as well.

The Libby trial may illuminate a split between Cheney and Rove in ways that help make some sense of the rhythm of Bush administration foreign policy.

Among other things, my sense is that the “muddle-with-a-surge-on-top” that emerged from the White House “Iraq Policy Review” reflected an unwillingness or inability to reconcile the James Baker approach to Iraq and the Cheney faction.

But most of all, I wonder what it might mean for the White House to try to marginalize a sitting Vice President who does not serve at the pleasure of the President.

Back in the Ford administration, Rumsfeld reportedly nudged Nelson Rockefeller off the 1976 re-election ticket.  But that hardly serves as a precedent for the current situation.  Nobody is arguing that the Constitution guarantees the Vice President a spot on the next political ticket.  It does, however, guarantee the Vice President formal autonomy as an elected official.

I do not think Cheney will actually move into the “opposition.”  This would be untenable for the White House.  At the level of factional politics, Cheney may ultimately have his way–in Iraq and elsewhere.

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