The stunning, vehement verdict in the Scooter Libby trial—that he lied, repeatedly, big time—isn't really about Scooter Libby at all. It is about how and why we went to war in Iraq, and about how Vice President Dick Cheney got us there. Loyalty is everything to President George W. Bush, and I don't expect him to march into Cheney's office to demand a resignation. But the veep is a liabiity as never before, and even Bush has to know that.
The Libby verdict now brackets politically—suffocates politically—the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. One side of the vise was already in place: the vivid, all-too-photogenic story of the human cost of the war to young American men and women. That, story, of course, is about Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the shoddy care given to outpatient casualties there. Now comes the rest of the story: lies that were told to cover up the story of how the war was sold.
Polls show that most Americans have moved on from the question of how we got into Iraq—and are far more concerned about how, and how quickly, we get out. Still, the last thing the administration needed was renewed focus on the genesis of the war.
And that is what we will get. First, Libby's lawyers immediately announced that he will appeal the four-count conviction for perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice—but the likely length of that process that will keep the story in the news.
Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame will be back, wanting to know—with good justification—what (and whom) Libby was lying to protect. Why were Cheney and Libby so frantic to discredit the couple? Was there something more than mere political hardball being played in this matter? What land mine had Wilson stepped on? And, as my colleague Chris Matthews keeps asking, what happened to the report Joe Wilson filed? If Cheney is the one who asked for it in the first place, what did he do with it when he got it? Did President Bush ever see it?
Expect the Democrats and their anti-war allies to do something that they have not quite had the specific legal justification to do until now: use the "L word". They will conflate two things— lying about evidence for war and lying to Patrick Fitzgerald—but no matter. They will use the Libby verdict to pump up the volume.
But the biggest burden will fall on Cheney himself. His own Hobbesian view of the world—that life is nasty, brutish and short—is becoming all too personal. He had to be relieved that Prosecutor Fitzgerald described his investigation as "inactive." That would seem to mean that Cheney is in no legal jeopardy.
Unless Libby, facing serious jail time (and he might well be, given the breadth of the verdict), decides to change his story and tell us something about Cheney we don't know—and that the president of the United States won't want to hear.