Hirsh: Scooter and Bush's No-Fault Policy

When it comes to Iraq, or anything having to do with Iraq, George W. Bush is still running a no-fault foreign policy. Iraq is a quagmire, a tragedy of accumulated human errors that may be unparalleled in American history. Yet the president has not held a single member of his national-security team publicly responsible for any of those errors.

Seen in that light, the president's commutation of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby's 30-month jail sentence on Monday could hardly be less surprising. Indeed Libby, who still has to pay a $250,000 fine and endure the stigma of being branded a felon (unless he gets pardoned too), is paying a heavier price than his former administration colleagues. Is it any wonder that Bush thought 30 months for lying over the case for war was "excessive," when the executors of that war have completely escaped whipping? George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer III got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Paul Wolfowitz was awarded the World Bank (until he botched that too), and Donald Rumsfeld was called a "superb leader" by Bush as he was gently ushered off to retirement last November.

Last March, Libby was convicted of four felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice over his role in the 2003 leak of a covert CIA officer's identity—part of an alleged administration effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson had earned the enmity of the administration by disputing one of its central allegations about Saddam Hussein: that the Iraqi dictator had sought to buy from Niger the uranium yellowcake needed to build a nuclear weapon. Still, many conservatives thought special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's pursuit of Libby was out of line. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was never charged with actually leaking the officer's name, the alleged crime that prompted the case in the first place. And the timing of Bush's decision may have been motivated by compassion as much as anything else: only hours before, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals had ruled that Libby must report to prison while his appeal was being heard.

The relatively small part that Libby's crime played in the overall Iraq disaster is also why Bush's commutation is expected to have little political impact in 2008. Bush is at rock bottom in the polls anyway, largely because of Iraq. Eliminating Libby's prison sentence may look like a last straw to some of the president's political opponents, but the camel's back is already broken. "Thing already look pretty grim," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "He knows he's not going to be judged by history over this."

A recent Washington Post story by Peter Baker portrayed the president as tranquil, serenely looking to the long reach of history to vindicate him. Once Bush was the most political of men, disdaining all talk of a "legacy." Now, the fortunes of his party and base over the short term, or even the medium term—and how moves like the Libby commutation might affect them—no longer seem to matter to him as much as that legacy.

In any case, presidential pardons rarely affect political races—with the stark exception of Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974, which likely cost him the 1976 race. And if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, as she's currently favored to do, it's probably the last issue she'll want to keep in the mix. Her husband is still vulnerable to GOP accusations that he cut a deal to pardon tax fugitive Marc Rich.