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Attack of the Cheneys | The Nation

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Attack of the Cheneys

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Matthew Duss
Matthew Duss is national security editor for the blogs Think Progress and The Wonk Room at the Center for American...

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The annual gathering of Israeli and American policy elites was supposed to focus on Iran. Then the Egyptian revolution scrambled Israeli conservatives’ worldview.

I'm sure not many fathers think about whether their children will defend them one day from accusations that they ordered torture. Dick Cheney would probably be one of the few who has--and how nice that he got that lucky. Since her father left office, Liz Cheney has been his most visible and effective advocate. She's given speeches at conservative gatherings, written op-eds for publications like the Wall Street Journal and made dozens of television appearances, all aimed at defending her father's record and carrying his standard. And occasionally she finds herself having to claim that a technique developed by torturers as a method of torture (waterboarding) was not really torture when her father approved it.

To a lesser extent than his daughter, but still at an unprecedented level for a former vice president, Dick Cheney has also taken a highly public role, popping up regularly to attack the Obama administration's national security decisions. This past May, explaining her father's inordinately high profile, Liz said on MSNBC, "I don't think he planned to be doing this, you know, when they left office in January," but the administration's policy shifts, as well as the concern that "perhaps [Obama] would even be prosecuting former members of the Bush administration," had necessitated the former VP's re-emergence. During this period, the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen counted "12 appearances, in nine and a half days, spanning four networks" for the younger Cheney.

The right's most famous father-daughter act has also been active behind the scenes. Liz has allied with neoconservative mover Bill Kristol to found Keep America Safe, infamous of late for its ads attacking as traitorous Justice Department lawyers who once "represented or advocated for terrorist detainees." The ad was so scurrilous that even Republican lawyers and Bush administration officials like former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Solicitor General Ted Olson condemned it. But whatever blowback the neocon attack machine may suffer for this particular overreach, the "Department of Jihad" smear is nonetheless a startling declaration that they just don't give a damn. (After all, what's a bit of rank dishonesty in an effort to head off almost certain Islamofascist doom?) With the Cheneys on board, neocons have become increasingly brazen in their accusations that President Obama is "inviting the next attack" by not sufficiently embracing the fact that "we are at war."

No question about it: Liz and Dick Cheney are on a mission, but just what is that mission? Some of it is clearly personal: in Dick's case, it's about burnishing his legacy; for Liz, there's the possibility of a run for Congress or the Senate. But in order to reposition themselves to retake the reins of power, the Cheneys must rescue the "global war on terror" from the ash heap of history, and they're doing this by playing the one card they've got: fear. Their larger goal, then, is to resuscitate the neocons' post-September 11 vision of a world in which the United States, unbound by rules or reality, imposes its will on friend and enemy alike.

Composer Frank Zappa once said of jazz, "It's not dead, it just smells funny." The same could be said of neoconservatism. The taint of Iraq continues to cling. Despite a sustained public relations effort to promote the Iraq surge as a vindication of the war, a January CNN poll reported that 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the war. Even though the Obama administration has retained elements of Bush's anti-terrorism programs--including a possible decision to try the September 11 conspirators in military tribunals rather than civilian courts--the neoconservative conceit of a "global war on terror" has largely been cast aside by policy-makers and the military in favor of a more nuanced view of who our enemies are, how they operate and how we can stop them.

It turns out, however, that being disastrously wrong on the most significant foreign policy questions of the era is no barrier to continued influence in American politics. Even though their bong-hit theories about transforming the Middle East at the point of an American gun retain about as much popular appeal as E. coli, the neocons continue to impact US foreign policy debates through an entrenched network of think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute), publications (The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review), supportive editorial boards (the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal) and, of course, Fox News.

With the continuing decline of the Scowcroftian realist faction of the GOP, there are currently no close competitors for control of Republican foreign policy, even though neocons are far from loved by conservative grassroots outside the Beltway. This much was clear at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Liz performed her usual "stab in the back" act, accusing Obama of "usher[ing] Al Qaeda-trained terrorists onto American soil." The audience gobbled it down like chum--then went into a full-on frenzy when Liz introduced her dad. But despite the wild applause for the Cheneys, the big winner of CPAC's presidential straw poll (with one of the highest totals ever) was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who represents a more populist-isolationist strain of conservatism and is a longtime critic of Dick Cheney and the neoconservative faction.

But while Paulite isolationists may disdain the role neocons play in the GOP, they lack the organizational tools to challenge it. A parallel can be drawn here to neoliberalism's control of Democratic economics. No matter how much inequality their theories generate, Robert Rubin's acolytes always seem to show up in positions of authority. "The problem for knowledgeable Republican foreign policy realists like Colin Powell, Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel is that the neocons are able to dismiss their concerns and policy recommendation as 'me-tooism' of the 'liberal' foreign policies of the Democratic Party," says Tom Shachtman, co-author of The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons From Nixon to Obama. Shachtman suggests that the neocons greatly benefit from the news media's tendency toward sensationalism. "Their far-out, deliberately argumentative and provocative stances are, they know, much more attractive to media outlets than the stances of the realists," Shachtman says. "The media's current mantra is, 'Let's you and him fight,' and so if a foreign policy moderate is reluctant to utter fighting words, any media outlet that is scrambling for ratings will find a neocon to do so."

And despite Paul's victory in the CPAC straw poll, his three closest competitors--Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty--all espouse neoconservatism as their foreign policy. Palin is currently advised on foreign policy by Randy Scheunemann, a close ally of Bill Kristol and former head of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Scheunemann's lobbying firm recently hired former McCain campaign spokesman and Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb, who also works for Keep America Safe. In other words, the populist enthusiasm of the tea partyers aside, the neocons remain in a good position to keep pushing their wars.

The political importance of having America "at war" underpinned Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol's 1996 Foreign Affairs manifesto "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," the ur-text of modern foreign policy neoconservatism. Pitched explicitly as a formula for conservative resurgence, it attacked what the authors called the "lukewarm consensus about America's reduced role in a post-Cold War world," insisting that conservative success requires offering "a more elevated vision of America's international role."

Even a decade and a half later, the piece is impressive in its ambition and frankness. While claiming Reagan's standard, the authors cast aside significant elements of his worldview, such as his enthusiasm for John Winthrop's vision of America as a "city on a hill," which Kagan and Kristol dismissed as a "charming old metaphor" to which Americans "succumb easily." In stark admission that what they were advocating was a departure from traditional conceptions of American foreign policy, they dismissed John Quincy Adams's admonition that America ought not go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." "But why not?" the authors asked. "The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts' content."

Crucially, Kagan and Kristol's views were not offered primarily as an analysis of foreign policy or international affairs but as a formula for conservative political success. Finding monsters abroad was, in their view, necessary for maintaining conservative power at home. September 11 provided the perfect monsters to match neoconservatives' ambitions, and they made the most of the opportunity. They won't give up the monsters without a struggle.

Fellow neocon Frank Gaffney, for example, recently criticized CPAC's organizers for slighting national security on the conference's agenda. "Even if a robust security-policy platform were not, on the merits, the right stance for the right," Gaffney wrote in the Washington Times, "it has proven repeatedly to be the winningest stance politically, especially in times when our countrymen properly feel insecure." In other words, being "at war" puts conservatives on better ground politically, even if it's not necessarily smart policy. You couldn't ask for a clearer admission of the essential bad faith that underlies the neocon arts.

Liz Cheney has proved to be an adept practitioner of those arts. While she is not the chronic sneerer her father is (just wait!), Liz can wave a bloody shirt as well as any Cheney. Recently on Fox News Sunday, when she criticized the Obama administration's use of civilian courts to deal with terror suspects apprehended in the United States--her father made the same charge on ABC that very morning--Liz was confronted by the Washington Post's Ceci Connolly with the fact that terror suspects had been tried very successfully in civilian courts by the Bush administration. Liz dismissed this as a "diversion," insisting that the prosecution of suspects in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in civilian courts got us "9/11 and 3,000 dead Americans." It was pure Dick.

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, author of the book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, says that Liz has been the driving force behind her father's reappearance on the national scene. "He really doesn't care what anyone thinks of him," Gellman says. "She's much more interested in responding to his critics and getting him to respond. It's because of her more than anyone that he's writing his memoirs. She's encouraging him to get out there." As for Liz's own views, Gellman says, "From everything I can tell, she's a little bit to the right of her father. He tends to be a little more nuanced, both in his views and in the presentation."

By the time Liz burst onto the scene in early 2008, she'd already had a lot of practice representing her dad's views, having been appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in 2002. A former State Department employee who worked under her but declined to be named says, "It was always clear that she was speaking in her father's voice." Another former State Department employee who worked with Liz confirms this, saying that she "was someone who was comfortable letting it be known who her father was," a practice that "engendered resentment and created problems for programs." According to this former employee, "it was clear she was there to advance the VP's agenda."

Middle East democracy promotion was a major part of Liz's portfolio, but the fact that she was the daughter of a high-ranking American official caused skepticism in the region. The second former State Department employee put it like this: "You can't be a democracy promotion official and tell a government to be more open when the person you're doing advance work for is the VP's daughter." What sign does it send, this colleague asks, "when the person telling you to reform your government is only in her position because of nepotism? Her mere presence in that job undermined the moral legitimacy of the pro-democracy and open-government argument."

Given Liz's status as a conservative scion, it's fitting that she has joined forces with another of Washington's most famous nepotism cases, Bill Kristol, the neocon deck's ace of spades. "In the modern configuration of the conservative media machine," wrote University of Kentucky political scientist Robert Farley on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, "Kristol occupies an unparalleled central position of power." Farley has compared Kristol to a business that is too big to fail. "Relationships are the currency of conservative punditry, and that currency is essentially secured by Kristol." No matter how wrong Kristol continues to be about everything, his reputation can never be allowed to sink.

Early in 2009 Kristol unveiled a new 501c(3) organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative. FPI was basically a re-branded Project for the New American Century, the neoconservatives' 1990s effort to lay the groundwork for America's next war (China was among the favored targets, but 9/11 changed that). But PNAC had become over-identified with the Iraq debacle, which its members had all played major roles in advancing, and so it was necessary to shut it down and reboot it as FPI.

In October 2009, Kristol launched Keep America Safe, a 501c(4), along with Liz Cheney and Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was a pilot of the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. Like Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, Keep America Safe essentially functions as Kristol's militia wing, taking a power drill to the fear center of the American brain and leaving the bloody remains of factual accuracy and good taste in its wake. Substantially funded by Mel Sembler, a major GOP donor and former chair of the Scooter Libby Defense Trust, Keep America Safe's main goal seems to be to Keep America Scared Shitless. The organization's website is a clearinghouse for anti-Islamic paranoia; it features numerous scary stories related to terrorism, like one from a former prison guard who had been attacked by Al Qaeda-sympathetic prisoners, and a daily "detainee spotlight" bio of the various Guantánamo Bay prisoners President Obama presumably wants to release into your neighborhood.

In addition to turning out press releases explaining why each and every item of news proves that Democrats love terrorists--when Congressional Democrats recently introduced language into a bill prescribing penalties for the crime of torture, Keep America Safe accused them of launching a "sneak attack" on the CIA--the organization also specializes in web ads created by Justin Germany, former director of web advertising for the McCain campaign. Picked up by sites like Politico and sympathetic blogs, these ads eventually make their way onto cable news. "A lot of what you want to do with web video is attempt to get earned media," Germany said in a recent interview. "What you want to be able to do is have all guns blazing at once."

On March 2 Cheney and Kristol escalated their attacks significantly with the "Deparment of Jihad" smear. Over the troubled strains of an ersatz Barber's Adagio, the ad flashes a picture of Osama bin Laden while a grave voice asks, "Whose values do they share?" The narrator then demands that the attorney general reveal the identities of "the Al Qaeda 7." The ad generated some "earned media" among the usual Fox News/right-wing blogger axis but soon generated a significant backlash even among conservatives, earning a letter of protest signed by former Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr and a rebuke from Fox News favorite Senator Lindsey Graham.

None of this will likely stick to Kristol or Cheney, who will simply pocket the coverage and prepare for the next attack. The Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent recently remarked, "It's odd how some in the Beltway media elite grant Ms. Cheney a kind of protected status that allows her to say literally anything about these issues."

 

ROB SUSSMAN

 

The protected status of certain policy elites is at the heart of the problem presented by the Cheney-neocon alliance. That people who committed such egregious errors in analysis and judgment are not held accountable and even continue to argue for those policies represents a problem for the Washington foreign policy establishment. "These people committed foreign policy malpractice," says Brian Katulis, a national security senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (where I'm also employed), "but the small and general insular nature of the national security think tanks and their close ties to centers of power...means that some of the same old faces that were around in the 1980s and 1990s and the 2000s are recycled again and again and again with no standards again being applied regarding the accuracy of their work."

Paul Pillar, a twenty-eight-year intelligence veteran who now teaches at Georgetown University, says of Cheney's prominent role as Obama critic, "The fact is that he [Cheney] has a lot to be defensive about concerning the destructive consequences of some of the Bush administration's national security policies, in which Mr. Cheney clearly had an extremely influential role. And the best defense is a lively offense." Pillar scoffs at the Cheneyite "war on terror" framing, saying such an approach "confuses and conflates the questions of the nature of the problem, the seriousness of the problem and the appropriate means for dealing with the problem." According to Pillar, it also "plays into Al Qaeda's desire to be considered as legitimate warriors rather than as loathsome criminals." Yet this is precisely the elevated status the Cheneyites want to bestow on our enemies, in an effort to create more favorable domestic political ground for themselves.

The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons, a knowledgeable Washington insider, questions whether there are even any real ideas underpinning the Cheney-Kristol merger. "There are different clusters of neoconservatives," Clemons says. "Some of them have told me that what, in fact, the Bill Kristol wing is about is keeping and maintaining power. It's not a question of principles or even of democracy at the end of a gun. That doesn't explain what's going on with this merger." Like Gellman, Clemons places Liz to Dick's right. "I would argue that Liz Cheney is more of a neoconservative than her father," he says. "I think what they're trying to do is position Liz and others to be the next generation of politicos that achieve real national power."

Gellman agrees that Liz is being positioned as a political force. Dick "obviously wants to help her," he says. "She obviously has political ambitions and [intends] to run for office." Gellman suggests that Dick's surprise appearance at CPAC should be seen as a key moment in Liz's upward climb. "My reading of [his] CPAC speech is that he went for the sole purpose of amping up Liz's status," Gellman says. "He told the same joke as always--'A welcome like that is almost enough to make me want to run for office again'--but with a subtle variation: 'I'll do everything I can, but I want to encourage the younger generation.' Then he gestured at Liz. It was almost a palpable passing of the torch."

Clemons challenges the notion that the neoconservatives were ever really down or out. "That was always false," he says. Despite the various disasters wrought by their ideas, "they always continue to sort of lurk in the framework and look for opportunities to animate their crowd and bring in their fellow travelers," as they have now with the Cheneys.

Combining Dick Cheney's considerable political network with the neocons' organizing and fundraising capacity will present a formidable challenge to their opponents. "We've seen a real technical capacity that these folks have to pick a national security threat, to organize 501c(3)s, 501c(4)s, and to drive a ton of money into this stuff," Clemons says. "There's so many of these groups, but it's all the same forty or fifty people."

Clemons concludes that the continuing prominence of the neocons, despite the demonstrable failure of their ideas, reveals "a continuing deficit on the part of their opponents to compete with them." The neconservatives "continue to find opportunities and movements to exploit, and to take advantage of this or that national security cause," Clemons says. "I constantly see a creativity on their side that I respect, frankly."

 

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