Why US 'war crimes' President hasn't been impeached

Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against president George W. Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves, writes leading US journalist Gary Kamiya .

The Bush presidency is a lot of things. It's a secretive cabal, a cavalcade of incompetence, a blood-stained Christian fundamentalist, a bad rerun of The Godfather in which scary men in suits pay ominous visits to hospital rooms. But seen from the point of view of the American people, what it increasingly resembles is a bad marriage. America finds itself married to a guy who has turned out to be a complete dud. Divorce, which in our non parliamentary system means impeachment, is the logical solution. But even though Bush cheated on us, lied, besmirched our family's name and spent all our money, we the people, not to mention our elected representatives and the media, seem content to stick it out to the bitter end.

There is a strange disconnect in the way Americans think about George W. Bush. He is extraordinarily unpopular. His approval ratings, which have been abysmal for about 18 months, have now sunk to their lowest ever, making him the most unpopular president in a generation. His 28 per cent approval rating in a May 5 Newsweek poll ties that of Jimmy Carter in 1979 after the failed Iran rescue mission. Bush's unpopularity has emboldened congressional Democrats, who now have no qualms about attacking him directly and flatly, asserting that his Iraq war is lost.

Some of them have also been willing to invoke the  'I' word, joining a large number of Americans. Several polls taken in the last two years have shown that large numbers of Americans support impeachment. An Angus Reid poll taken in May 2007 found that a remarkable 39 per cent of Americans favoured the impeachment of Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney, one of the architect's of the US administration's discredited neo-conservative ideology.

An earlier poll, framed in a more hypothetical way, found that 50 per cent of Americans supported impeaching Bush if he lied about the war, which most of that 50 per cent presumably now believe he did. The east coast state of Vermont has gone on record in calling for his impeachment, and a number of cities, including Detroit and San Francisco, have passed impeachment resolutions. Congress members John Murtha and John Conyers and a few other politicians have also floated the idea. And there is a significant grassroots movement to impeach Bush, spearheaded by organisations like After Downing Street. Even some Republicans, outraged by Bush's failure to uphold right-wing positions (his immigration policy, in particular), have begun muttering about impeachment.

Bush's unpopularity is mostly a result of Iraq, which a big majority of Americans now believe was a colossal mistake and a war we cannot win. But his problems go far beyond Iraq. His administration has been dogged by one massive scandal after the other, from the Hurricane Katrina debacle, to Bush's approval of illegal wiretapping and torture, to his unparalleled use of "signing statements" to disobey laws he disagrees with, to the outrageous Gonzales and the sacking of US attorneys affair.

In response to these outrages, a growing literature of pro-impeachment books, from The Case for Impeachment by Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky to U.S. v. Bush by Elizabeth Holtzman to The Impeachment of George W. Bush by Elizabeth de la Vega, argue not only that Bush's misdeeds are clearly impeachable, but also that a failure to impeach a rogue president bent on amassing unprecedented power will threaten our most cherished traditions. As Lindorff and Olshansky conclude, "If we fail to stand up for the Constitution now, it may be only a piece of paper by the end of President Bush's second term. Then it will be time to be afraid."

Yet the public's dislike of Bush has not translated into any real move to get rid of him. The  'impeach-Bush movement' has not really taken off yet, and barring some unforeseen dramatic development, it seems unlikely that it will. Even if there were a mass popular movement to impeach Bush, it's far from clear that Congress, which alone has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings, would do anything. The Democratic congressional majority has been at best lukewarm to the idea. In any case, their constituents have not demanded it forcefully or in such numbers that politicians feel they must respond. Democrats, and for that matter Americans of all political persuasions, seem content to watch Bush slowly bleed to death.

Why? Why was Clinton, who was never as unpopular as Bush, impeached for lying about sex, while Bush faces no sanction for the far more serious offence of lying about war?

The main reason is obvious: the Democrats think it's bad politics. Bush is dying politically and taking his Republican Party down with him, and impeachment is risky. It could, so the cautious Beltway wisdom has it, provoke a backlash, especially while the war is still going on. Why should the Democrats gamble on hitting the political jackpot when they're likely to walk away from the table big winners anyway?

These realpolitik considerations might be sufficient by themselves to prevent Congress from impeaching Bush. Impeachment is a strange phenomenon. It is a murky combination of the legal, the political and the emotional. The Constitution offers no explicit guidance on what constitutes an impeachable offence, stating only that a president can be impeached and, if convicted, removed from office for treason, bribery "or other high crimes and misdemeanours."

As a result, politicians contemplating impeachment take their cues from a number of disparate factors, not just a president's misdeeds, but a cost-benefit analysis. And Congress tends to follow the cost-benefit analysis. If you're going to kill the king, you have to make sure you succeed and there's just enough doubt in Democrats' minds to keep their swords sheathed.

But there's a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush's warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America's support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It's a national myth. It's John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness, come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we're not ready to do that.

The truth is that Bush's high crimes and misdemeanours, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day.

Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn't mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we're too confused, not least by our own complicity, to work up the cold, final anger we'd need to go through impeachment. We haven't done the necessary work to separate ourselves from our abusive spouse. We need therapy, not to save this disastrous marriage, but to end it.

* Gary Kamiya is executive editor of the US alternative news website, Salon.