Dick Cheney is the calmest man in the room. Too calm.
by Walter Russell Mead | Nov 01 '04
He has many faces, all gray. He is a symphony in gray. He ranges the
spectrum from vanilla to colorless to dull. Even the pink of his lip and
the blue of his eyes are gray. As the Trojan horse for a contemporary
American revolution, he is magnificent, as radical behavior would be the
last thing suspected of someone who comports himself as he does. He is an
accident of history. He is a world-historic figure. He is the greatest
enigma in American public life. His name is Dick Cheney.
1. The West Wing
Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson-the country's first two
vice-presidents-gaze benignly past the cream-colored walls toward the
blue-carpeted floor. A copy of a Remington sculpture and a
nineteenth-century painting of the Grand Tetons add a hint of the West.
Vice-President Cheney meets me at the door, shakes my hand, and shows me
to a seat in the half of his office furnished for guests.
I think and write about U. S. foreign policy for a living at the Council
on Foreign Relations in New York. Before getting this far-my first contact
with the vice-president-I'd gone through months of screening. My latest
book had circulated among the vice-president's staff to determine whether
my political attitudes passed muster. Call me unaligned; there are days
when I can't decide whether to worry more about the Bush administration or
But I had come to the White House on a mission. This man, and this
administration, were wrecking my life. I wanted to know why.
I hate the decision I'm being forced to make this November. I hate the
choices that the war on terrorism is imposing on us. The gravest threats of
an unimaginably difficult and challenging future are coming together with
some of the unhappiest unresolved conflicts in our national life, creating
a perfect political shit storm. I don't like the storm and I don't like the
choice. But the war is real, our divisions are real, and the choice isn't
You can talk about Bush all you want, but for me the choice is not so much
either hating Bush or voting for him (or hating him and voting for him,
which quite a few people I know seem to be doing) but about the man in
whose office I was now sitting, the most powerful vice-president in history.
In a very real sense, the Bush administration is a Cheney administration.
There are a lot of people-and a fair few are among my friends and
relations-who think of Dick Cheney much the way Captain Ahab thought of
Moby Dick. In poll after poll last summer, he scored the lowest approval
ratings of any of the four top national candidates. One poll showed that
four times as many people think he needs his teeth whitened as think John
That's not quite my beef with Dick Cheney. Rather, for virtually his
entire adult life, he's been engaged in the systematic destruction of what
I was raised to believe was progressive, decent, and forward-looking in the
United States of America. Now, with Cheney's determined backing, the Bush
administration had invaded Iraq in the teeth of world opinion, had stumbled
into an occupation for which it was clearly unprepared, and, whether you
looked at the Atlantic alliance or the United Nations, seemed to be
mounting an assault on what two generations of American statesmen had grown
accustomed to regarding as the fundamental principles of sound American
foreign policy. And they won't even tell us why they really did it. Their
stated reason-Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction-was patently
wrong. They had bigger and even better reasons for what they did, reasons
that would calm their critics if not win them over, but we are in the last
laps of an endless presidential campaign, and on this momentous subject
they remain mute. Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator. George W. Bush
and Dick Cheney are as silent as the Sphinx.
And so, how to make coherent what is incoherent-U. S. foreign policy in
the Bush years? The great question in America today is this: Are Cheney and
Bush the bearers of bad news who are adjusting American foreign policy to a
new and ugly reality, or are they themselves the bad news, making the world
more squalid and more dangerous as they mislead the country on a ruinous
You have to give Cheney credit: Although he sits in the eye of the
tremendous shit storm encircling the world, you will never find a calmer,
more rational guy.
"Looking back on the last three years," I ask, "what would you say are the
administration's lessons learned from fighting the war on terrorism?"
Looking a bit like Jeeves bringing his hangover remedy to Bertie Wooster,
Cheney deflects the question with reassuring blandness about the difficult
Cheney projects calm no matter what it is he is saying, which makes it
possible to miss the portent of things that come from his mouth, which is
of course the way he likes it. He'll tell you your house is on fire as if
he were complimenting you on your tie.
He is also, I am told by those who love him, the funniest man in the room.
And while one's first thought might be that those must certainly be some
pretty bleak rooms, I have heard him crack wise. I once heard someone ask
him how he felt about being the one left to kneecap Senator Kerry, to make
the down-and-dirty attacks so the president can keep his hands clean.
"Well," he said, "I prefer to think of them as statesmanlike appraisals."
Dry chuckles all around. Or there was the line he got off at the Gridiron
Club this year, when he described his role in the Bush White House as being
"a dark, insidious force pushing Bush toward war and confrontation."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told me that "he doesn't tell long
shaggy-dog jokes. He's got a quick sense of humor. And it's a wry sense
of humor with a nifty manner about it. He brought the situation room to
tears the other day. There was a terrible article in the press about
something that was going on in one of the departments. And he walked in and
sat down and made a comment about it and everyone just howled. And he was
late. And he walked in with his stack of papers, stuck them down on the
table. I can't remember what it was. I've got enough trouble doing my job
here without trying to remember humorous things Cheney said, but it was
For thirty years, Cheney has traveled through Washington surrounded by
fog. Moderates-like his House of Representatives mentor and leader Bob
Michel-think he's a moderate. Mildly conservative but still somewhat
centrist Republicans like Bush 41 confidant and national-security advisor
Brent Scowcroft thought he was one of them-conservative, yes, but sensible
and prudent at the end of the day. Neoconservative intellectuals committed
to the global spread of democracy think he's a fellow traveler. And the
rabid fire-eaters from the fever swamps think he's one of them.
Not that Cheney dissembles. The Washington Post once ran a story about
Congressman Cheney that gushed about what a moderate he was. Cheney
instructed someone in his office to call the paper to demand a correction.
Five feet away from him, I behold this Trojan horse. What hair he's got is
gray; his physique is more Homer Simpson than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bald
and gray is the right look for him, by the way; in old pictures with hair,
he somehow manages to look shifty. Now he seems like the old family lawyer.
His body language is, well, there's not much. No chopping hands, no
pointing fingers, no scowls, and, except for the occasional dry snort of
amusement, no smiles or laughs.
He's no war hero, either; he took five deferments during the Vietnam War
because he had "other priorities than military service." So he isn't a
stud, a hero, a charmer, an orator, or one of the boys.
Even so, he's surrounded by his own fervent cult of fiercely loyal staff.
The only public figure I've ever met with a staff this devoted and this
good at insulating its principal from the world is Fidel Castro. Only when
you sit down with Fidel, he talks. Cheney mostly shimmers.
But here we are now, speaking about the problems we face with Iran,
slowly, sagely, soporifically. Of course, Iran was now demonstrably what
Cheney had once called Iraq: an aborning nuclear power with ties to
terrorists. Nothing could have been more obvious or more clear as he
explained why Iran's quest for nuclear weapons represents a serious threat
to American interests and to our friends and allies. He spoke about his
hopes that a diplomatic solution can be found and praised the widespread
support of Iranians for a more democratic government and, presumably, a
more peaceful foreign policy.
I'd asked a senior administration official whose views reflect the
vice-president's what we should do in the future if intelligence is suspect
or diplomacy fails and the mullahs go for the bomb. He shrugged and smiled.
"Of course I can't predict what would happen," he said. "But allowing
certain types of regimes to get their hands on nuclear weapons exposes you
to all kinds of unacceptable risks and dangers."
Then he spoke the magic words: "At some point, you just have to do the
cautious and prudent thing."
Ah, cautious and prudent-who wouldn't want to do that?
Allow me to translate: The vice-president believes that there are
circumstances-not remote and unlikely circumstances, but possible and quite
conceivable circumstances-that could lead us toward war with yet another
nasty Middle Eastern regime.
For many people, the "cautious and prudent" course would be to leave Iran
alone, avoid war, and try to work out some way of living with its bomb.
Russia has the bomb, China has the bomb; Israel, India, England, and
Pakistan have the bomb; we've even learned to live in a world where France
has the bomb. Why not do the "cautious and prudent" thing-and learn to live
with a nuclear Iran?
A few days later, I spoke to former secretary of state George Shultz about
this principle, and he immediately understood and agreed. Tie goes to the
runner in those cases, Shultz says. That is, when you are facing unknown,
possibly grave dangers, and you really don't and perhaps can't know exactly
what to do, it is safer to act than to wait. It's a positively radical
idea, at the heart of George Bush's doctrine of preventative war. It is
precisely this kind of thinking that got the United States into Iraq. And
never before in our history, perhaps never before in the history of war and
peace, have prudent and cautious added up to invade .
There's the rub. And Cheney is still quietly and calmly explaining that
it's the right thing to do. Worse still, I think I believe him.
2. Don't ask about that
TO GET FROM CHENEY'S suite in the West Wing to his staff quarters in the
Eisenhower Executive Office Building, you go downstairs past a small
gallery of photographs, including one of the vice-president on a couch on
Air Force Two watching a bearded, captured Saddam Hussein on a flat-screen
Then it's out onto a walkway across the White House lawn over to what,
during much of modern history, was the main building that held the
departments of state, war, and navy; today, it is just an annex for White
As I followed Cheney's press secretary, Kevin Kellems, across the lawn, I
found myself thinking about my last visit to the EEOB. That was during the
Clinton years, and they seemed very far away. I had come because someone in
Madonna's entourage was toying with the idea of a Madonna concert in
Havana. The question was whether a concert like that could be staged under
a "cultural loophole" in the U. S. embargo against Cuba. It might be a
stretch, said the Clinton official I talked to. Madonna concerts, after
all, were just entertainment. If only I had come, the official lamented,
with a request for someone with a more substantive claim to cultural
status-like Bruce Springsteen.
Ah, the old days.
Kellems led me up to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's office in what used to be
the assistant secretary of the Navy's office. This is the room from which
Teddy Roosevelt ordered the U. S. fleet toward Manila in preparation for
the Spanish-American War-and the room he left to take the Rough Riders up
San Juan Hill; it is the room in which Franklin Roosevelt worried that his
failure to serve in combat during World War I would doom his political
ambitions. In the anteroom is a desk that used to be in the White House.
Libby opened the drawer to show me where Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower
had scratched their names.
As we settled into the Roosevelts' old office, Libby asked me what I
wanted to know. Libby is a slight, fit man with sandy hair and a penchant
for secrecy that rivals his boss's. Indeed, the vice-president's chief of
staff is known as Cheney's Cheney. He is courtly yet intense and is given
to saying, "Please, call me Scooter."
Well, I said, like most Americans, I know well the actions taken by this
administration; I'm less clear on why. So I'm interested in the
vice-president's overall view of the world-how he sees our grand strategy
in the war on terrorism, how that fits in with his broader ideas about how
the world and the United States are changing.
This was like farting in church. The sunny day seemed suddenly overcast
and the temperature in TR's old digs dropped 15 degrees.
"That's a conversation stopper," he warned me. "Don't try it."
In subsequent weeks and months, as I pursued the great white whale across
the United States, I would get this reaction quite a bit. "Never ask him
about his worldview," Kevin Kellems warned me. "He doesn't like to talk
Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton professor and Cheney's deputy
national-security advisor, gave me the same advice. "Don't ask about his
worldview," Friedberg had warned me at the coffee shop across the street
from the EEOB, where Cheney staff members occasionally stop in for
quasi-confidential talks with the press. "He isn't comfortable with that
kind of conversation."
People who've known him for years say that Cheney's not one to talk about
"deep philosophy." Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, just
laughed when I asked him about it. "Dick Cheney isn't interested in that
kind of crap," he said.
3. What he doesn't say
LIKE A LOT OF PEOPLE who work on American foreign policy, I spend a fair
amount of time at home and abroad talking to foreigners about what we are
doing. Some of this is organized by the State Department, which brings
foreigners to the U. S. and sends Americans (of many different political
points of view) to help foreigners try to understand what the crazy
Americans are up to.
Since September 11, I've made it my business to do as much of this as I
This experience has made me deeply aware of just how angry many of our
traditional friends are about American foreign policy in the Bush years.
At home it's been more of the same. A few days after September 11, I began
getting hysterical e-mails from people who saw the attacks as a plot by
powerful corporations and interests to facilitate some kind of a military
coup in the United States. It was the kind of sick spew of half-baked
conspiracy theories, uninformed speculation, and paranoid fantasy that I
remembered, hazily, from the pot smoke of the Vietnam era. As an
eighteen-year-old, I had fallen for all kinds of silly theories about
American energy companies having designs on the allegedly huge oil deposits
off the Vietnamese coast, or the CIA's need for funds that could be
obtained only through control of the rich opium routes of the Golden
Triangle of Southeast Asia. Oh, and Nixon was planning to cancel the
elections, and the FBI was secretly building concentration camps to hold
the antiwar movement.
I've watched as new fantasies have crept steadily toward mainstream
discourse. It's not just best-selling books in France saying that Bush was
behind September 11. It's an increasingly paranoid tone in American
political discourse as more and more people go off the deep end in
confusion and bitterness about the Bush administration's war policy.
The return of Vietnam-era politics to American foreign policy can only end
in disaster from every point of view-especially at a time when the war we
are fighting, however ineptly, is a war of survival. We could always come
home from Vietnam; we don't have that option in the war against terrorism.
The Bush administration's sometimes misleading, sometimes contradictory
stories about why it invaded Iraq have accelerated the rapid Vietnamization
of American politics. The war in Iraq in my judgment was both necessary and
just, but you would never know this from the conflicting, incoherent, and
inarticulate justifications that from time to time the administration has
produced. Combine the incoherence of the war rationale with the
catastrophic failures of policy in the aftermath of the military victory
and it is easy to see why so many patriotic people have found themselves
sinking into quagmires of conspiracy thinking and why an antiwar movement
has grown up so quickly.
I frankly would have hoped and expected that Cheney and Rumsfeld, who
served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, when Vietnam-era bitterness
reached its poisonous apogee, would have understood the importance of, as
far as they could, preventing or at least slowing the rise of a similar
political movement today. An America divided is an America weakened, and we
are deeply and painfully divided today.
As I traveled into the American heartland to watch Cheney perform on the
hustings, I was looking for signs that the administration was coming to
grips with its failure to communicate and hoping that by leveling with the
people it would begin to restore trust and consensus.
At a "town hall" meeting in a convention center in Joplin, Missouri, to
which only identified supporters had been invited to ask "questions,"
Cheney gave as close to a full and comprehensive review of administration
war policy as I'd yet heard in public.
He started by setting out the state of the world when he and Bush took
office. On January 20, 2001, Cheney said, "the planning for the attack of
9/11 was already well under way." The terrorists had been recruited and
trained. The money was raised; the attack was planned. The Taliban had
turned Afghani-stan into a vast safe haven for Al Qaeda and others. Twenty
thousand terrorists had already been trained.
In Iraq, Cheney charged, Saddam Hussein was also providing a safe haven
for terrorists. He was paying $25,000 to families of suicide bombers. In
the past, he'd produced and used weapons of mass destruction and had booted
the UN inspectors out of his country.
A nuclear bazaar was operating out of Pakistan. Muammar Qaddafi was
spending "millions of dollars" to get nuclear weapons.
Beyond all that, terrorists had come to the conclusion that using force
against the United States got results. Going back to Ronald Reagan's
withdrawal from Beirut in 1983 after 241 marines died in an attack on their
barracks, Cheney ran down a list of attacks on U. S. targets that were met
with mild or ineffective responses-or with changes in U. S. policy that
suited the goals of the terrorists.
That, he argued, was where things were when they took over. Since then,
they'd overthrown the Taliban, scattered Al Qaeda, jailed Saddam Hussein,
closed down the Pakistani nuclear bazaar, and put Libya out of the nuclear
business. Borrowing a phrase Churchill used in World War II, Cheney said
that we hadn't reached the beginning of the end, but perhaps were coming to
the end of the beginning of the war.
Not surprisingly, this worked for the Republican crowd in Missouri. To
give him full credit, Cheney spoke without the condescension that creeps
into the voices of so many politicians when they speak to a wide audience.
The Cheney I saw on the platform in Joplin looked and sounded exactly the
same as the one I saw in his private office in the West Wing.
In an age of image consultants and hair fluffers, there's a certain
discreet charm to a politician who comes across as if he were just sitting
in your living room. Cheney has a solidly middle-class background and still
looks and sounds like one of the neighbors. He famously drove a beat-up VW
Bug while working in the Ford administration; after the defeated Ford left
Washington, the story goes, Dick and Lynne Cheney drove the Bug to
McDonald's for a hamburger.
BUT AS THEY USED TO SAY say about Chinese food, half an hour later you're
hungry again. A partisan crowd might lap it up, but there isn't much there
for the skeptic or even for the open-minded swing voter. There are some
basic and obvious questions that Cheney didn't even try to address: Could
we have gained more allies in Iraq if we had moved more slowly and
deliberately toward war? If invading Iraq was the right decision, what
about the difficulties of the occupation? Should there have been more
"boots on the ground" in the beginning to establish security before the
insurgency got off the ground? Rather than disbanding the Iraqi army,
should we have tried to turn at least some of it into the nucleus of the
security forces of the new Iraqi government? And-even assuming its basic
policies were right-why was the administration doing such a poor job at
winning hearts and minds, not only in France, not only in the Muslim world,
but virtually everywhere in the world?
And what did Cheney's silence on these topics mean? Had the administration
not really thought about these problems or learned anything from its
experience in the terror war? In that case, would another four-year mandate
mean more of the same?
We then got back into the press SUVs for the motorcade out to the airport.
Past a scattering of protesters-Halliburton, falling wages, war in Iraq,
that sort of thing-we then clambered onto Air Force Two .
In Battle Creek, Michigan, and again in Dayton, Ohio, I watched with
diminishing hope as Cheney continued to utter slogans-often slogans I agree
with-but without performing what I remain naive enough to believe is an
essential task of a national leader in wartime: giving the public a serious
and thoughtful exposition of the country's policies in a time of great
In Battle Creek, the motorcade took us past protesters into the back lot
of a local high school, and we walked through the industrial-shop classroom
into a gym with bunting and flags-not all that different from a pep rally,
except that most of the crowd hadn't seen a high school classroom in twenty
Cheney came out on the stage and greeted the partisan, cheering crowd.
"This is not an enemy we can reason with, or negotiate with, or appease,"
he said. "This is, to put it simply, an enemy that we must destroy."
"President Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the United
States." The only line that gets more applause than that trope is Cheney's
courageous defense of the Pledge of Allegiance: "We believe that our nation
is one nation under God, and we believe that Americans ought to be able to
say 'under God' when they pledge allegiance to their flag."
The next morning in Dayton, Cheney attacked Senator Kerry for proposing
that the U. S. should adopt a more "sensitive" war strategy against Al
Qaeda. "President Lincoln and General Grant did not wage sensitive
warfare," he said. "Nor did President Roosevelt, nor Generals Eisenhower
and MacArthur. . . . The men who beheaded Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson
will not be impressed by our sensitivity."
The sound bite made the national news that night, and the talking heads
tut-tutted over whether this was a fair attack or an unfair attack. In
context, the Kerry quote was about being sensitive to our allies and
neutral opinion, not going soft on Al Qaeda, but by the time Cheney's
through with him, it sounds as if Kerry wants to coddle Al Qaeda the way
liberal Democrats used to be accused by Lee Atwater of coddling criminals:
Yet there's a more substantive point as well. Cheney is a military-history
buff and is very well read on the U. S. Civil War. Lincoln made a lot of
mistakes in that war. There were times when things looked very bleak for
the United States. Interna-tional public opinion was on the side of the
South. Enormous scandals rocked the government, analysts and pundits
blasted Lincoln's administration, and even his allies sometimes despaired.
But Lincoln knew that he had to hold on, to fight the war through thick
and thin, to engage the enemy and grind him down with the North's superior
numbers and wealth. In Grant he found the general who could fight this kind
of warfare: ugly, costly, and at times ruinously unpopular.
Cheney sees this kind of persistence as the essential quality of wartime
leadership. I don't think he's wrong. Churchill, too, was a leader who saw
the essential logic of the fight against Hitler and was willing to follow
it wherever it led-to the alliance with Bolshevik Russia, which he hated
with every fiber of his being; to the destruction of the British Empire,
which he had dedicated his life to preserving; to the very gates of hell.
Suppose that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder, goes this quiet,
unspoken argument. Yes, the news from Iraq is bad. And yes, it is the Bush
administration's fault. Well, Lincoln made one blunder after another.
Churchill failed in Norway, failed in France, failed in Yugoslavia, failed
in Crete, failed in Singapore. And he won the war. You cannot ask a leader
to be infallible or ever-victorious in a real war. You can only ask him to
Lincoln, Churchill, and Grant: I don't think Cheney invokes them just to
drop names. These are clues to the kind of world he believes we live in and
to the war of survival he believes we must fight. These names are a measure
of the stakes he sees, of the risks he will run, the price he will pay, the
suffering and damage he is willing to sustain and inflict.
But as much as Cheney and Bush might like to compare themselves to
Churchill, the real problem isn't that they are excessively Churchillian;
it's that they aren't Churchillian enough. Churchill believed that the
united will of the British people to fight was the secret weapon that would
win the war, and preserving and toughening that united will was the course
that he took. His wartime speeches acknowledged defeats and setbacks.
Unpleasant facts were frankly stated and faced. He earned the trust of a
people at war by voicing their doubts even as he stoked their resolve.
Dick Cheney is not going to spellbind like Winston Churchill, nor should
he try. But read Grant's memoirs; there is a plainspoken American way of
laying out the remorseless logic of necessary war.
Scoring rhetorical points against an opponent is okay; reducing complex
arguments to sound bites is also okay. But what we see in the
administration's communication strategy is tactical brilliance unhinged
from any strategic vision of the long-term requirements of the war-just as
its conduct of the war on terrorism in the field often seems to be
strategically brilliant but tactically weak. In both cases, the result is
too often summed up by a phrase that Colin Powell said to me last spring to
describe the result of the invasion of Iraq, one that by August had been
picked up by the president: catastrophic success.
4. Cheney's Cheney
THERE'S A BLUE mountain bike leaning against the desk in Scooter Libby's
waiting room; GOP-friendly publications like The Weekly Standard and
National Review lie scattered on the tabletops. You can also find an
occasional copy of People .
As we sit down at Scooter's conference table, I put the tape recorder down
and edge it closer as Scooter greets me in a quiet voice, drowned out by
the rumble of a nearby air conditioner. Why hasn't the administration been
more forthcoming with a fuller and more convincing argument for its
policies? I ask.
Scooter smiles demurely. I don't know the answer to your question, he
says. When nice people like you bother to come talk to small little old
insignificant people like me, then we try and make the argument.
With the battered air of someone who knows it won't do any good, Scooter
then reminds me of all the terrible things that war critics predicted but
that didn't happen in Iraq: the siege of Baghdad that was going to turn
into a new Battle of Stalingrad with thousands of U. S. combat deaths, the
civil war between Kurds and Arabs, the millions of refugees, the collapse
of moderate governments around the Arab world, the rush of Shiite Iraqis
into the arms of the Iranian mullahs. All of it predicted, none of it
happened-but none of it matters now. The failure to find WMD and the
president's proclamation of "Mission Accomplished" on the USS Abraham
Lincoln have forever marked neocon Iraq policy as a "miscalculation."
Outside Scooter's office, a loud drone resolved itself into the
whup-whup-whup of a helicopter landing nearby. "I guess the president
decided to drop in to see you, Walter," Kellems shouted.
But what were the real reasons for going into Iraq? I'd asked a senior
There were two basic reasons, the official said. "One was to be rid of the
Saddam Hussein regime, whose defiance of the world community had multiple
consequences-not the least of which were very bad consequences for America
at the strategic level."
The other was containment. Most people who opposed the war argued that
containment was working, that, as the phrase went, "Saddam was in his box."
"The containment of Saddam, while not as costly in the short term as war,
was still a very costly endeavor. It cost money, obviously. But that was a
small part of it.
"It resulted in large American forces being stationed in Saudi Arabia. It
resulted in a very bad message to the world, including to Islamic
terrorists, that America and the world could be defied successfully. It
advanced the radicalization of certain Saudis and the glorification of
Saddam. Every day he succeeded in flouting us was another day in which the
message to the Islamic world would be that America could be defied."
And the connection between containment and Al Qaeda? I asked. Between our
Iraq policy and September 11?
The official pointed out fatwas from Osama that cited the effects of
sanctions on Iraqi children and the presence of U. S. troops as a sacrilege
that justified his jihad. In a real sense, September 11 was part of the
cost of containing Saddam. No containment, no U. S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
No U. S. troops there, then bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques
and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass.
As it was, the administration took what looked like the path of least
resistance in making its public case for the war: WMD and intelligence
links with Al Qaeda. If the public read too much into those links and
thought Saddam had a hand in September 11, so much the better.
This must have looked good at the time, but the failure to find WMD and
the insurgency in Iraq have brutally exposed the political miscalculation
in the administration's strategy.
Suppose the administration had taken on the tougher job of laying out the
full strategic case for the war: that Saddam's refusal to implement the
cease-fire agreement was endangering the United States and its allies, and
that the United States would act to enforce full compliance with the
cease-fire. Saddam's persistent obstruction and ultimate expulsion of
weapons inspectors would be one of the items on the charge sheet, but not
the only one. Not everyone in the United States or abroad would have
accepted this case or agreed with the president's decision for war if
coercive diplomacy failed, but we would clearly be in better shape today if
the administration had done more to put the full range of its views on the
Again, this is the way Winston Churchill would have done it. When the
French capitulated to the Germans in 1940, Churchill realized that the
French government had broken its pledge to Britain that it would keep its
fleet out of German hands. Add France's naval strength to Germany's and
Hitler was within striking distance of the naval superiority that would
have enabled him to invade Britain. Churchill determined on a preventative
attack; French ships could turn themselves over to Britain, sink
themselves, or be sunk by the British.
Churchill did what he had to do, but he also stated his purpose and his
reasoning openly and clearly. He did not hype his case-he didn't fluff up
evidence to say that Hitler was an imminent threat to integrate the ships
into the German navy. He confined himself to the facts, and the case he
made in public was essentially the case he made in the secret deliberations
of the war cabinet. As a wartime prime minister, Churchill won and kept the
trust of British, allied, and, ultimately, most neutral public opinion
during a long and deadly war marked (as all wars must be) by its fair share
of failures, blunders, deceptions, and tough moral choices that, judged by
the calmer and higher standards of peacetime, looked dubious at best.
Bush and Cheney chose another path, and we are all living with the
5. Tough Town...
"FUCKING CRAZIES" is what Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to have
called the Cheney camp in a 2002 phone call to Jack Straw, the British
foreign secretary, as the administration pushed for an early war in Iraq.
And while it seems objectively true that neither is likely to be high on
the other's Christmas list, Powell has never lost his broad sympathy for
much of what the Bush administration has accomplished.
"We stopped a friggin' war!" a senior State Department official bellowed
into my phone when I asked about what American foreign policy had
accomplished in the Bush years-referring to American mediation of the
crisis between India and Pakistan, when intelligence analysts (for what
that's worth, I'm compelled to add after the Iraq WMD fiasco) thought
nuclear war was less than a week away.
Officials also run down a list of great powers with whom the Bush
administration has enjoyed stable and businesslike relations: China,
Russia, India, and Japan. France and Germany aren't on that list-which may
say something about how the Bush administration defines "great powers."
When Secretary Powell is asked about administration miscalculations in
Iraq, he is blunt. "We did the right thing at the right place and the right
time," he says about the invasion, but admits that the administration
miscalculated the difficulty of achieving its goals in Iraq. The
insurgency, he concedes, is not under control, and the Pentagon has been
forced to increase troop deployments beyond its original plans.
From a State Department point of view, the biggest miscalculation was the
failure in postwar Iraq. The State Department had a cadre of experts who
worked on a detailed plan for the occupation, but the White House was
steadfast. Nobody who wasn't what one official called a "true believer,"
nobody who wouldn't drink the Kool-Aid that Ahmad Chalabi was serving up,
was allowed to play a major role in the postwar planning.
This meant that, among other things, the Coalition Provisional Authority
had a weak plan and a thin team when it woke up one morning as the
government of Iraq. I saw this myself in Amman, Jordan, last spring, when I
spent the evening with a group of CPA officials-young, bright, and in jobs
way too big for them. Kids fresh out of grad school who, if they were in
Washington, would be interning and making copies were running major
programs for a country whose history they knew nothing about and whose
language they didn't speak. The CPA did not remake Iraq.
The State Department official I spoke with notes with some satisfaction
that Iraq policy is now back in the hands of the institutions and
bureaucracies that, whatever their faults, have the resources to plan and
administer large-scale efforts.
Interestingly, the one question about Cheney to which I could never get a
clear answer was whether he had a direct role in supporting Chalabi-the
now-discredited figure whom neoconservatives had plugged for years as the
answer to America's question of who could and should replace Saddam.
"Since Chalabi lost some of his luster, it's amazing how many people
really never met him," the State Department official says. "Well, maybe
once or twice. He's been airbrushed out of a lot of pictures. I know. Tough
town, my friend."
OF COURSE, listening to the State Department has not always been the best
way to predict what the Bush administration will do. I decide to go find
out what the rest of the war Cabinet thinks about lessons learned and what
they can mean for the future. There's nobody better to start with than Paul
Wolfowitz, former protégé of Dick Cheney, former boss of Scooter Libby, and
currently serving as deputy secretary of defense in Donald Rumsfeld's
Wolfowitz is probably the most hated person I've ever met. In much of the
Arab world, he's so symbolic of what many see as the Jewish control of
American foreign policy that I've taken to using him in my lectures there.
I point out that George Soros has been identified by former Malaysian prime
minister Mahathir Mohamad as the leader of the worldwide Jewish plot to
keep Muslims down. And Paul Wolfowitz, I tell my Arab audiences, is of
course widely seen as the Jewish evil genius behind Bush-administration
policy in the Middle East. And yet George Soros is so angry with Paul
Wolfowitz's foreign policy that he's spending millions of dollars to drive
Bush, and therefore Wolfowitz, out of office.
So even if we imagine that America is run by the Jews, there are at least
two Jewish conspiracies.
I don't know what's more frightening: that in the year 2004 we have to use
arguments like this at all; that in most of the places where I've given
this talk, the idea that American Jews aren't an organized, controlling
bloc with a single agenda is new; that many of the people who think
American foreign policy is a Jewish plot are professional diplomats; or
that I'm starting to have to make some of these points to European as well
as Arab audiences.
In person, Wolfowitz is a perfectly calm and friendly guy. He looks and
sounds much more like a kindly professor of international relations than an
evil genius heading a Jewish clique determined to plunge the world into
misery and destruction.
Wolfowitz has bent under these blows, but he's still unbowed. "I've still
got the scars," he says of the negative press coverage he's received as the
insurgency has gained strength. But he's still hopeful "that eight months
from now, a year from now, you have a situation in Iraq where Iraqis have
largely taken charge."
When I ask him about where the administration is headed, he goes back to
the late 1940s and to Democrats like George Marshall and Dean Acheson who
laid the foundations of what became the bipartisan consensus for the cold
war. He reminds me that Acheson decided to be "clearer than truth" in
explaining the communist menace to the American people and points out that
this era, which we now think of as characterized by bipartisan consensus,
was actually a bitter and divisive time-featuring Joe McCarthy, for one
But it's clear enough that Wolfowitz, widely regarded as the scariest
neocon this side of Richard Perle, is spending real time thinking about
consensus building in foreign policy. That was not a prominent
neoconservative theme before Iraq.
When Wolfowitz looks ahead to a Bush second term, he sees a return to the
Middle East peace process. "We were on the verge, I think, last May, with
that Sharm al-Sheikh meeting, of really starting to make some breakthroughs
. . . and you could almost feel it slipping away as the situation in Iraq
got more difficult."
Even as this reminds me how expensive the war has been, it's reassuring.
Serious moves by the Bush administration on the Arab-Israeli front would do
more than any other single step to rebuild relations in Europe and in parts
of the Middle East.
I take advantage of my time with Wolfowitz to learn more about Cheney.
Wolfowitz had worked for Cheney in the Defense Department back under Bush
41. And unlike Cheney, "Wolfie," as he's affectionately known, is
comfortable having conversations on the dreaded worldview question. So I
ask him: Is Cheney a neocon?
It's a question that's debated in Washington, as the war in Iraq is seen
as a brainchild of the neocons. Wolfowitz thinks for a minute. "No," he
says. "Cheney can't be a neocon. He isn't Jewish."
There's an interesting subtext to this line. The rap about Jewish
intellectuals in Wasp circles a generation or so ago was that Jews were
bright but "too ideological." They allegedly valued theory over practice,
consistency over efficiency. They took good ideas and carried them "too
far"; they learned their statesmanship from books and professors rather
than at their grandfathers' knees. There's a whiff of that old fault line
in the Bush administration today; especially after Iraq, you can sense a
recoil from following the full neocon logic to its furthest and hardest
Seriously, though, I say to Wolfowitz. Is Cheney a neocon?
Again, Wolfowitz thinks. "Not really," he says finally, "though he has
moved in that direction."
I would get almost exactly the same answer from William Kristol, neocon
editor of The Weekly Standard .
For both Kristol and Wolfowitz, Cheney is at heart a realist. That is,
Cheney is more concerned about things like the national interest than
abstract ideas like democracy. Spreading democracy might be good in itself,
and it might also be good for American power, but Cheney was more likely to
start from the position of wanting to defend and advance American power
than wanting to defend and advance democracy worldwide.
Cheney is a realist, and the neocons themselves are feeling a little
chastened. Rebuilding a domestic consensus and reviving the peace process
stand high on Wolfowitz's agenda. This is progress.
NEXT ON MY LIST comes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the man who
brought Dick Cheney into government in 1969. Rumsfeld, too, seems to be
singing out of the multilateral hymnbook these days. "There are an awful
lot of things the United States can't do alone that we simply have to have
the cooperation of other countries on," he tells me.
The Defense Department is engaged in a review of post-hostility efforts,
and Rumsfeld says it is clear that successful post-hostility policy
"requires all elements of government cooperating." This was not DOD policy
in the Chalabi era.
And when it comes to questions of grand strategy in the war on terrorism,
Rumsfeld again sounds very much in the American mainstream. Pet
conservative causes of the 1990s, such as abolishing the United States
Information Agency and substantially downgrading our efforts in public
diplomacy, now look like mistakes to him. Rumsfeld wants to revive the USIA
to make America's case more effectively abroad. And like Wolfowitz, like
Libby, like Powell, Rumsfeld these days is looking back to the early years
of the cold war for how to develop strategies and political support for a
long struggle in which ideology could count as much as military strength.
In the Pentagon these days, this war is looking more like the cold war than
like World War II.
Rumsfeld makes a point about Cheney's conservatism. "I don't know that
he's that conservative," he says. "I never thought of him as being
particularly conservative. He's kind of a western Republican. His views and
his positions are more rooted in understanding our country and the people
of our country than in any theoretical underpinning."
So: the Pentagon has gone soft and the war Cabinet is retreating to the
On the need for preemptive war, Rumsfeld isn't giving an inch. What about
the fact that our intelligence was faulty in Iraq? I ask. Does that mean we
need to hold back on the use of force?
Not at all, Rumsfeld says. The combination of unreliable intelligence and
the danger of WMD could lower, not raise, the threshold for preemptive war.
"If someone is threatening you with a snowball," Rumsfeld says, "you can
afford to think he won't throw it and take the hit if you're wrong. No
"But if you start thinking about the potential of biological weapons, if
you take the hit, you could affect tens of thousands of people, and you
could have that run down through another generation or two."
As Cheney might put it, at some point you have to do the cautious and
THERE ARE SOME who look at these facts and hope that the Cheney Revolution
in American foreign policy has burned itself out-that the neocons had their
tail feathers scorched in Iraq and won't be flying so high in the future.
Cheneyism was tried, and it failed. W.'s second term will look more like
his father's first.
That's not how I read it. Cheneyism as an approach to post-cold-war
American foreign policy was first articulated in a 1992 draft of a
national-defense review paper that shocked many readers in the U. S. and
abroad with a call for the U. S. to deter other countries, even its allies,
from ever challenging American military supremacy. The outcry was so great
that the paper was disavowed and a sanitized version appeared in the waning
days of the first Bush administration.
The famous National Security Strategy document of 2002 is a direct
intellectual descendent of that earlier paper. That document contains both
sides of Cheney's agenda: unchallengeable and untrammeled American
strength-including preemptive war-and the kinder, gentler words about
cooperating with allies and working in multilateral institutions.
The confusion and tension between the traditional and radical elements in
Cheneyism reflect the confusion and tension most Americans feel as we look
at the war on terrorism. On the one hand, we know that we need the help of
others to defeat this enemy, and that we somehow need to win over the
hearts and minds of the Muslim world, especially, to stop the growth of
terrorist ideology. On the other hand, we want the president to take any
military steps necessary to protect us from our enemies-and we don't rule
out anything against people who want to use dirty bombs or biological
weapons in our cities. We want to be loved-but 64 percent of us are willing
to use torture in some cases if that's what it takes.
This tension in Cheney's worldview is our tension. If Cheneyism doesn't
cohere, it is because we live in an incoherent time.
6. The Cheney Era
BRENT SCOWCROFT, who was George Herbert Walker Bush's national-security
advisor, told me a story about the vice-president that reminded me just how
unlikely this Cheney era has been. We all remember that in 2000 Cheney was
asked to pick the perfect running mate for Governor Bush. An
elder-statesman role. And of course we all know that after his exhaustive
search, Cheney said, Governor, I have found him, and he is me.
Scowcroft says that when Cheney joined Halliburton in the nineties, he
thought he was leaving public life for good. "I'm convinced he made a
strategic decision," Scowcroft says. "He turned his back on government, and
he decided he was in a new career. I saw him at a panel discussion held at
the Bush Library in the late nineties. It was crystal clear that he wasn't
following foreign policy closely. He had turned his sights to a different
career and thrown himself into it, and I don't think he had any intention
when Bush asked him to look for a vice-presidential candidate to end up
with the job."
Now, no American vice-president has ever had anything like Cheney's power,
and no one in the government knows as much about American foreign policy
and how it is made as Cheney does. For an accidental vice-president,
Cheney's behavior has been radical and his impact profound.
And yet, as I watch him fielding questions from the daily press in a swirl
of aides, he's the calmest man in the room.
The vice-president is in a back room at a convention center in Dayton,
Ohio, where he's just finished delivering a slashing attack on John Kerry.
The speech was vintage Cheney: defining the differences between the tough
leadership and clear stands that the country needs and the indecisive
waffling of his despicable opponents. Nuance is just a fancy French word
for flip-flop. And as for the war in Iraq: The danger from Saddam's WMD
program and his ties to Al Qaeda left us no choice. Cheney has been
criticized over and over by the national press for this defense of the Iraq
war-especially the links to Al Qaeda, which neither the 9/11 Commission nor
anyone else thinks are as strong as Cheney insists they are. But he's got
his story and he's sticking to it.
And as he sits next to his wife at a small table in a room crowded with
staffers and daughter Liz carrying her four-week-old baby in a basket, he
looks somewhat vital.
The cast-iron certainty has been that a second term would be the end for
him, but as we now know, this man is capable of upending cast-iron
certainties by the score. Let Bush win in November and by, say, 2006,
Cheney might start to think that his stented heart is feeling better, and
maybe he's ready for the big job. The urgency of the task facing America as
he sees it is not likely to lessen in four years, and who better to carry
on the work than the man who has been the principal author for the entire
post-9/11 era? After all, he is only three years older than John Kerry.
Bush might give him the dedazo , as the Mexicans call the blessing a
retiring president gives the designated heir. Members of the Bush family
are mindful that the country might not be dynastically inclined, thus
freezing brother Jeb out in 2008. A caretaker Cheney presidency, goes this
thinking, would keep the seat warm for Jeb and prevent somebody else from
remaking the Republican party in the meantime.
As he finished his speech, I realized that he made no reference to the
dramatic military events of the day, with U. S. forces on the brink of
assaulting the holiest shrine in Shiite Islam during its confrontation with
the Mahdi militia.
It was stunning. Clearly the campaign is moving down a scripted and
predetermined path, and responding to the uncertainty and concern many
Americans feel in response to historic events in the war isn't part of the
script. The look crossing the vice-president's face spoke loudly: This is a
campaign rally. Who in his right mind would bring bad news to these good
And so as my time with the war Cabinet comes to an end, I'm afraid that
they've missed the most important lesson of all.
"Never, never, never," Winston Churchill once wrote, "believe any war will
be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can
measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who
yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no
longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and
Those who take a democracy to war must build the kind of support that can
see them through the setbacks and disasters that must inevitably come. If
it's your war, you must embrace it, good and bad. And you owe it to the
people to explain yourself. This the Bush administration has not yet
learned to do, and the consequences could be severe.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Vice-President Cheney speaks in the flat calm
that is his authority. And we are put at ease.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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