This essay appears in the March 6 issue of The New York Review of Books and is posted at TomDispatch.com and The Nation with the kind permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.
If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
—Dick Cheney, 2013
1. “We Ought to Take It Out”
In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. “They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley,” he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.
“There’s no population around it anyplace…. You can’t say it’s to generate electricity, there’s no power line coming out of it. It’s just out there obviously for production of plutonium.”
The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant—with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: “Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out.”
Launching an immediate surprise attack on Syria, Cheney tells us in his memoirs, would not only “make the region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with respect to nonproliferation.” This was the heart of the Bush Doctrine: henceforth terrorists and the states harboring them would be treated as one and, as President Bush vowed before Congress in January 2002, “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” It was according to this strategic thinking that the United States answered attacks on New York and Washington by a handful of terrorists not by a carefully circumscribed counterinsurgency aimed at Al Qaeda but by a worldwide “war on terror” that also targeted states—Iraq, Iran, North Korea—that formed part of a newly defined “axis of evil.”1 According to those attending National Security Council meetings in the days after September 11: “The primary impetus for invading Iraq…was to make an example of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.”2
And yet five years after the president had denounced the “axis of evil” before Congress, and four years after his administration had invaded and occupied Iraq in the declared aim of ridding Saddam’s regime of its weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans had detonated their own nuclear weapon and the Syrians and Iranians, as the vice president tells us in his memoirs, were “both working to develop nuclear capability.” What’s more