For decades “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” has been the guide for American policy. It’s been proven wrong many times over. The flip side of that coin, failure to indict and convict either of those devils, “he’s a crooked son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch”, is just as wrong. Both theories are founded on the premise that rocking the boat upsets the apple cart – a mixed metaphor I know, but still nicely put.
But it’s those two policies that have put us where we are today – a country divided and in disarray. For me an uncertain future is better than a compromised present – I’ll always bet on the devil I have yet to meet rather than the one who has already fucked me over.
The Civil War, a war of secession and armed insurrection put America’s existence to the test. The leaders of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were all guilty of treason, of “levying” war against the United States. After Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination President Andrew Johnson granted amnesty and pardons to the rebels, no one was arrested much less convicted of treason.
The professed rationale was there were far too many guilty to be brought to justice even though 850,000 men died in that war. Some believe that that alone was justice enough – I say not. The conscripts were the ones who died, not the generals or the political leaders who led the rebellion. Them are those that needed to be held accountable.
Justice was denied, self-interest, pragmatism and greed carried the day. Amnesty, the pragmatic solution trumped justice and the rule of law. The failure to bring the guilty to account haunts the United States to this day – the Ku Klux Klan fielded David Duke as a candidate for Senate in 2016 and racism is still a factor in the last election. Giving the guilty a pass was all that was needed to allow for Reconstruction, a criminal enterprise to flourish – another well-known and foreseen devil
The failure to enforce accountability is a constant, endemic failure of our body politic. This failure allows for the concentration of power and wealth in a small number of individuals and institutions which become self-perpetuating and controlling. Examples are many and the failure of accountability is always the lesson to be learned.
Take the case of General Douglas MacArthur. In July, 1931 MacArthur with an questionable use of military force stopped the Bonus March of World War I veterans on Washington, DC. While this ended his military career, he was never charged or court-martialed but was fobbed off to take up the post of Military Advisor to President Quezon of the Philippines. In 1942 after the fall of Manila the Philippine President and his Cabinet including MacArthur divvied up the Philippine’s foreign exchange deposits and MacArthur took a check for $500,000 – the 2016 Income Value Equivalent of $36,000,000.
MacArthur’s Philippine payments were in violation of the Emolument clause of the Constitution. That and the rape of the Philippine Treasury were never prosecuted and were kept classified until 1979, well after his death in 1964. “Why” you ask? You do not indict a war hero, a man who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for naught, for just doing his job, that’s why.
During the Korean War MacArthur defied Presidential orders and those of the Joint Chiefs and was fired. “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President” said President Truman but he never took that additional step in bringing him to account for insubordination and failure to obey lawful orders, court-martials offenses. And so, MacArthur remained the darling of the far right, a martyr – and a spoiler in the 1952 presidential race.
Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon is another example. In 1952 he was accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions and he delivered his famous “Checkers” TV speech where he claimed that they were of no consequence – one paid for his Christmas cards and another was his daughters’ black and white mutt, Checkers. He got a pass on that one and went on to become Vice President and President. Had he been made accountable for Checkers and other sins he could never have given us Watergate. Not even Watergate held him accountable. He resigned, was pardoned and lived out his sorry life in comfort rewriting history.
More recently George W. Bush promoted the Iraq War with a lie that Iraq “had ongoing programs and stockpiles” of Weapons of Mass Destruction and that Saddam Hussein was prepared to use them against the United States. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was never approved by Congress but was carried out under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 contrary to the clear mandate of the Constitution.
Congress was complicit in giving Bush a pass for this transgression and gave him and itself a fig leaf – The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. No one was about to seek accountability, not after 297 Representatives and 77 Senators had voted in its favor. Nor was Barack Obama brave or courageous enough to take on the task to right the wrong, not when he was using the same authorization to wage his own wars in Yemen and Somalia.
George Bush stands convicted by an international court for “war crimes, torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment”. Yet he sits today in Crawford, Texas unindicted and unaccountable, responsible for 4,500 dead and 32,000 wounded American servicemen and at least 500,000 dead Iraqis and trillions of dollars wasted.
Insisting on accountability is perceived as dangerous, an option where the future is uncertain. The United States was faced with a financial crisis in 2007-2008, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The precipitating factor was the criminalization of the home mortgage securities markets which threatened the collapse of large financial institutions – banks, brokerage firms, hedge funds and insurance companies. To hold these financial institutions accountable in a “free market” economy would have them sustain losses and go bankrupt if necessary with those responsible going to jail.
“Then what?” was the question everyone asked. There was no ready answer and rather than facing uncertainty, “the devil you don’t know”, the United States embraced “the devil you know” the very people and institutions that had brought on the disaster – the bankers, the con men, the high-risk punters, the gamblers, the politicians for hire who had passed enabling legislation.
The financial institutions were bailed out with taxpayer funds. The financial institutions were then given a reward for their transgressions and misdeeds – the ability to borrow from the Treasury, at little or no interest, and reap enormous profits and to award their executives record bonuses and stock options. By the way, no one went to jail and the fines that were levied were tax deductible and ultimately paid for by shareholders.
Avoiding accountability for fear of an uncertain future is unfounded. Accountability has proven to have little or no effect on institutions. The Catholic Church for years rationalized the protection of pedophile priests from criminal prosecution for their decades spanning crimes as necessary for the Church’s very survival. Bishops and the Holy See instituted a system wide regime of cover up and suppression which was effective but resulted in hundreds of cases of criminal abuse that could have been prevented.
When the enormity of the crimes became public knowledge nothing much happened. Yes, victims were compensated to the tune of $1.2 billion. Yes, the San Diego and Milwaukee Dioceses sought bankruptcy protection. Yes, some Monsignors and Bishops made public mea culpa apologies. But mass is still celebrated on Sundays, babies are baptized, weddings and funerals take place and life goes on, as does the Church.
When it comes to choosing devils I am for the devil of an uncertain future rather than the devil of a compromised present.
Deyan Ranko Brashich is a contributor writing from New York. He is the author of Letters from America, Contrary Views and Dispatches. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com