A cheer for democracy

January 04, 2004

UPCOMING ELECTIONS have a wonderful way of concentrating candidates' minds, and if a politician does the right thing for the wrong reasons - is that bad? Some might be tempted to accuse the Bush administration of pandering to the electorate with a series of about-faces. But not us. If this be pandering, let's have more of it.

Four prime examples (all of which, of course, anyone in the administration would point out have nothing whatsoever to do with politics or political calculations):

After stoutly maintaining for months that he didn't need to step aside in the CIA leaker case, Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped aside. The U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, is on his way to Washington to take over the investigation into who leaked Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent to columnist Robert Novak. It doesn't take too much of a suspicious bent to suppose that the leak was an effort to take a slap at her husband, who was making the White House look foolish over claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Niger.

There is, to be sure, something particularly artificial about this whole probe. For one thing, Mr. Novak (or any of several other reporters who apparently got the same tip, but didn't use it) could choose to recognize that there's a difference between protecting a source who would reasonably fear retaliation for divulging an uncomfortable truth, and covering up for what looks like a political hatchet job by someone who wanted to keep his fingerprints off it. For another, in the notoriously disciplined Bush administration, it seems all it would take would be a word from the Oval Office to get the perpetrator to fess up.

Washington, though, doesn't work that way. So the probers will have to go the long way around. Mr. Fitzgerald, by all accounts, is a straight shooter who probably wouldn't have taken this job if there weren't some chance of finding the culprit.

It has been two years since the Pentagon made plans for military tribunals for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Pentagon officials have consistently argued that everything they're doing at Guantanamo is perfectly legal and perfectly fair. That's a point of view that, over time, gets harder and harder to maintain, at least with a straight face. Now the Pentagon's house intellectual, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, has had oversight of the tribunals taken away from him, and an actual Army lawyer has been brought out of retirement. Other actual - and distinguished - lawyers will be empaneled as an appeals board. This still isn't perfect, but it's less rank than it was.

To listen to the explanations coming out of Washington, it wasn't Halliburton's fault that it had to charge so much money for the gasoline it sold to the government in Iraq. Nevertheless, Halliburton is being pushed aside (though that may be temporary) and, amazingly, the price of a gallon in Baghdad is likely to fall.

Mad cow disease. It turns out there actually is something the government can do about meat safety, if given half a chance. Who'd have thought? But read on:

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