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George Cheney Illustration Essay

Discussed in this essay:

Defense PlanningGuidance for the 1994–1999Fiscal Years (Draft), Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1992

Defense Planning Guidance for the1994–1999 Fiscal Years (Revised Draft), Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1992

Defense Strategy far the 1990s, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1993

DefensePlanning Guidance for the 2004–2009 Fiscal Years, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2002

Few writers are more ambitious than the writers of government poli­cy papers, and few policy papers are more ambitious than Dick Cheney’s masterwork. It has taken several forms over the last decade and is in fact the product of several ghostwrit­ers (notably Paul Wolfowitz and Colin Powell), but Cheney has been consistent in his dedication to the ideas in the documents that bear his name, and he has maintained a close association with the ideologues be­hind them. Let us, therefore, call Cheney the author, and this series of documents the Plan.

The Plan was published in unclas­sified form most recently under the title of Defense Strategy for the1990s, as Cheney ended his term as secretary of defense under the elder George Bush in early 1993, but it is, like Leaves of Grass, a perpetually evolving work. It was the controver­sial Defense Planning Guidance draft of 1992 — from which Cheney, unconvincingly, tried to distance him­self — and it was the somewhat less aggressive revised draft of that same year. This June it was a presidential lecture in the form of a commence­ment address at West Point, and in July it was leaked to the press as yet another Defense Planning Guidance (this time under the pen name of Defense Secretary Donald Rums­feld). It will take its ultimate form, though, as America’s new national security strategy — and Cheney et al. will experience what few writers have even dared dream: their words will become our reality.

The Plan is for the United States to rule the world. The overt theme is unilateralism, but it is ultimately a story of domination. It calls for the United States to maintain its over­whelming military superiority and prevent new rivals from rising up to challenge it on the world stage. It calls for dominion over friends and enemies alike. It says not that the United States must be more power­ful, or most powerful, but that it must be absolutely powerful.

The Plan is disturbing in many ways, and ultimately unworkable. Yet it is being sold now as an answer to the “new realities” of the post–September 11 world, even as it was sold previously as the answer to the new realities of the post–Cold War world. For Cheney, the Plan has al­ways been the right answer, no mat­ter how different the questions.

Cheney’s unwavering adherence to the Plan would be amusing, and maybe a little sad, except that it is now our plan. In its pages are the ideas that we now act upon every day with the full might of the Unit­ed States military. Strangely, few critics have noted that Cheney’s work has a long history, or that it was once quite unpopular, or that it was created in reaction to circumstances that are far removed from the ones we now face. But Cheney is a well-known action man. One has to admire, in a way, the Babe Ruth–like sureness of his political work. He pointed to center field ten years ago, and now the ball is sailing over the fence.

David Armstrong is an investigate reporter, formerly of the National Security News Service.

More from David Armstrong:

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, their paths diverged. Cheney was elected to Congress in 1978, where he remained throughout the Reagan administration. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed him secretary of defense, where he became a competent and generally respected figure. Rumsfeld moved into the private sector and remained there for 24 years, while staying active in a wide range of public service committees and commissions.

After the first President Bush left office, Cheney also moved into the private sector, spending time at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington before becoming the C.E.O. of Halliburton, one of the largest oil and construction companies in the world, with connections to militaries in several countries. When George W. Bush chose him as his vice president in 2000, Cheney helped persuade the new president to name Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense. Following the election, there was considerable relief that Cheney and Rumsfeld would be serving the new president, given the doubts that were being voiced about Bush’s capabilities. Even many Democrats were pleased that these competent, experienced figures would play a large role in the new administration.

Shortly before his election in 2000, when the vision of “compassionate conservatism” still seemed plausible, Bush said, “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, ‘We do it this way; so should you.’ ” But after the 9/11 attacks — eight months into his presidency — everything changed. “We were embarking on a fundamentally new policy,” Cheney recalled. “We are dealing here with evil people.”

A group of Republican neoconservatives and other political and government figures quickly gathered not only to respond to the 9/11 attacks but also, as they saw it, to restore the nation’s confidence and ideals. Cheney and Rumsfeld had privately deplored the decline of American power in the Nixon and Ford administrations during the Vietnam War. They saw in 9/11 an opportunity to revive American power and superiority, or as Cheney put it, to “get it right this time.” Much of what happened after the attacks would very likely have occurred no matter who was in charge — the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the building up of intelligence organizations and other changes. But from the start, Cheney and Rumsfeld began pushing for a much wider change, what the president called a “war on terror.”

But what did a “war on terror” mean? For Cheney and many others, and eventually for President Bush, it seemed to mean only one thing — a regime change that would send a message through the Middle East that, as Paul Wolfowitz predicted, would undermine radical regimes and build new ones more consistent with American ­ideals. Although it was reasonably clear that no political regime had organized the 9/11 attacks, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush came to believe that the regime most in need of destruction was Iraq, even though there was no evidence that the Iraqis had played any role in the terrorist events. By late 2002, the Iraq war was on a fast track, justified by Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. There was resistance from some members of Congress, some United Nations investigators and some individuals in the State Department. But Cheney and Rumsfeld, who were among the most determined people in the administration to promote the assault on Iraq, were not deterred by the fact that the United States had never before launched a pre-emptive war. Their public argument was the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But it soon became clear that there were no such weapons.

This discovery caused a political earthquake worldwide. The war now seemed to have no rationale at all, but Cheney and Rumsfeld quickly came up with new ones. Cheney in particular takes no responsibility for this remarkable failure of intelligence. Instead, he argues that the absence of weapons did not make Iraq any less dangerous, and perhaps more. As he often does throughout his book, he argues through others — in this case, David Kay, who worked on the Iraq survey group that was sent to find W.M.D.’s. Cheney quotes him: “I actually think what we learned during the inspections made Iraq a more dangerous place, potentially, than in fact we thought it was even before the war.” Charles Duelfer, another survey group member, insisted (with no visible evidence) that “Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s W.M.D. capability . . . after sanctions were removed.”

Rumsfeld brusquely dismisses his failure to provide sufficient troops to avoid what soon became an out-of-control insurgency that continued for years. He responds in his book, as he did at the time, “Stuff happens,” a phrase he often used when confronted by failures. Among the stuff that happened was the absence of body armor in a highly dangerous country. Soldiers begged for it in vain for months during his occasional visits to Iraq. Rumsfeld’s response was that we had to fight with the Army we had. He is still fighting on the cheap, defending himself with his favorite phrase — “known unknowns” (which is even borrowed for the title of his book). It allows him to claim that it was all but impossible to determine what the military needed. But he also presents himself as realistic enough to understand that Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner and his claim that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” would “haunt his presidency until the day it ended.” And he is candid enough to admit that he should have realized that the war would be a long and difficult one, that democracy in Iraq would be unlikely and that the American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, had led the country into chaos by recklessly and incompetently disbanding the Iraqi police and military, and the Baath Party government.

The fact of a war of choice was perhaps bad enough. But the Iraq war (and the Afghanistan war as well) were fought not just by weapons and battles. They were also fought by torture. Rumsfeld brushes away the charges of torture in his book by noting either that the Defense Department did not participate, or that the techniques it employed were “legal and humane.” Cheney, however, makes clear from the start that “we would have to work ‘the dark side if you will,’ ” a statement he continues to defend in his book.

Cheney insists that the “enhanced interrogation” that he helped create was not torture. Waterboarding, he has said, was humane and effective because a few lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel said so. Many of their colleagues were aghast, but they were mostly ignored and in some cases dismissed. Even some high-ranking military officers called waterboarding criminal torture. So did Senators John McCain (no stranger to torture) and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans. Cheney passingly mentions other forms of enhanced interrogation in his book, but he does not describe what they were. Nor does he make any mention of the many terrorist suspects who were turned over through “extraordinary rendition” to other countries, where there was no inhibition to using torture.

By 2006, the Bush administration was falling apart. The president’s poll numbers were falling almost by the day. Democrats were on their way to winning majorities in both houses of Congress. Cheney — the most powerful vice president in American history — was becoming an increasingly lonely figure within the White House. Bush decided to make changes — in large part because of the administration’s incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (In his book, Cheney blames the failure on Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana governor, for dithering.) Among the dismissed, over Cheney’s strong objections, was Rumsfeld. (The president timidly delegated Cheney to give him the news. Rumsfeld stepped down without complaint.) Cheney, of course, could not be fired as vice president. But he had now become the most toxic figure in the White House.

Cheney’s chief of staff and enforcer, Scooter Libby, was accused of leaking the identity of Valerie Plame, a C.I.A. operative, whose husband had challenged the claim that Hussein was building nuclear weapons. Libby was later convicted of perjury. The president commuted his sentence, but as Cheney writes, “I felt strongly that Scooter deserved a pardon, and I broached the subject on numerous occasions with the president.” In the last weeks of Bush’s presidency, he asked again and, when denied, says that the president had made a “grave error”; he told Bush, “you are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle.”

That was not the only time Cheney was repudiated. In 2007, Cheney pushed hard to bomb a nuclear reactor in Syria. When the president asked who agreed with the vice president, no one, including the president, raised a hand — a hard defeat for a man whom Karl Rove had long called “management.” “I was a lone voice,” Cheney pathetically writes. (The Israelis successfully bombed the Syrian reactor several months later.) By then, Cheney was one of the most unpopular political figures in America, often ridiculed as “Darth Vader.” The polls showed an approval rating of 13 percent.

Cheney did not take his loss of power easily, and the final chapters of his book are filled with bile and contempt. It was no secret that he had been a critic of Colin Powell through much of Powell’s tenure as secretary of state. He writes that Powell was “not only failing to support the president’s policies” but was “openly disdainful of them.” (Some people in the foundering administration believed that “the president’s policies” were often Cheney’s.) He “was particularly disappointed in the way” Powell “handled policy differences. Time and again I heard that he was opposed to the war in Iraq. . . . But never once in any meeting did I hear him voice objection.” And he was at least equally contemptuous of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She had, he writes, “made concession after concession to the North Koreans and turned a blind eye to their misdeeds.” Cheney consistently complains about what he considered her weaknesses. He also goes after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, claiming that he was often speaking “for himself and not reflecting U.S. policy.” By the end, he even seems to be disappointed with Bush himself — a disappointment that was probably reciprocated. Although Cheney is cautious in his criticism of the president, it seems clear that he thinks Bush had slipped back into what the vice president calls a pre-9/11 mode.

Brent Scowcroft, Gerald Ford’s and George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, said about the man he had worked with in two previous administrations: “Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.” What had turned this capable, pragmatic, respected figure into the harsh and belligerent man who seemed toward the end to believe that only he understood the world of his time? Part of it was that he had become “really conservative,” as he told President Bush when he was invited to join the ticket in 2000. Certainly, he was convinced that 9/11 had dramatically changed the world and had radically transformed America’s role in it. And he was disturbed that so many people did not share his views. He also had serious heart problems through much of his life, which intensified during his tenure as vice president, and though he courageously fought to keep going, his poor health may have contributed to what Scowcroft considered his change.

The angry responses to Cheney’s book are evidence of how embattled the Bush White House became in its last years, and how central Cheney’s role was. Colin Powell has accused Cheney of taking “cheap shots” in his book. He has challenged Cheney’s claim that he had forced Powell out of the State Department. Powell himself had long made clear that he would serve only four years, and he charged Cheney with lying. Powell also called Cheney’s statements in the book “the kind of headline I would expect to come out of a gossip columnist.” He added, “I think Dick overshot the runway.” Rice responded to Cheney by describing his book as “utterly misleading” and an “attack on my integrity.” Even Donald Trump, in the aftermath of his preposterous hints that he would run for president, gave an interview in which he accused Cheney of “lying.”

Together, Rumsfeld and Cheney served through many crises and many disasters. It is not surprising that in the turbulent post-9/11 years there would be contention, disappointment, failure, sniping and broken friendships. If they had written candidly about these battles, their books would be of real interest. Instead, both men have stuck to their defensive postures. Cheney said in a television interview that his book would have “heads exploding all over Washington.” For the most part, the explosions were tame. But perhaps the most remarkable explosion was one of Cheney’s own statements. Toward the end of his book, he boldly describes the Iraq war — one of the most disastrous events of recent decades — as a great American triumph. The fiasco that nearly destroyed Bush’s presidency was, according to Cheney, “one of the most significant accomplishments of George Bush’s presidency — the liberation of Iraq and the establishment of a true democracy in the Arab world.” If that statement isn’t an “explosion,” it would be hard to know what is.


A Memoir

By Donald Rumsfeld

Illustrated. 815 pp. Sentinel. $36


A Personal and Political Memoir

By Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney

Illustrated. 565 pp. Threshold Editions. $35

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