Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney | The Nation


Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney

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Cheney's "major role in bringing war to Iraq" likewise required a strategic twisting of the truth. Gellman details a private briefing in late September 2002 that Cheney provided to Republican Congressman Dick Armey, then majority leader of the House. Armey opposed an invasion of Iraq on the reasonable grounds that the United States should not attack a country that had not attacked it. Usually hawkish, Armey presented an embarrassing hurdle to the war party in the administration. As Gellman says, "If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting," making him "the center of gravity of the political opposition." Something had to be done, and Cheney did it. According to Gellman, Cheney, brandishing top-secret satellite photos, made statements about Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal and ties to Al Qaeda that he knew to be erroneous: "In the privacy of his office, for this one crucial vote, Cheney leveled claims he had not made before and did not make again." Some of these claims "crossed so far beyond the known universe of fact that they were simply without foundation." Gellman concludes that Cheney deliberately told Armey "things he knew to be untrue," bamboozling a Congressional leader of his own party just long enough to extract a go-ahead vote. Having been preapproved on false pretenses by a gullible or complicit Congress, the misbegotten invasion was launched six months later.

About the Author

Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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According to Chalmers Johnson, Bush's imperial presidency may be the final chapter in the collapse of American democracy.

The Berkeley law professor's carte blanche constitutionalism was a gift
to the Bush Administration, offering legalistic justifications for
lawless behavior.

Cheney has been deservedly criticized for overestimating the efficacy of military force, for giving no thought to the aftermath of military victory and, generally, for failing to anticipate the risks and costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His failure to perform due diligence before leading Halliburton into a financially disastrous merger with Dresser Industries in 1998 earned him a subsequently hushed-up reputation for managerial ineptitude, which, despite his brilliance at bureaucratic manipulation, he amply displayed as an architect of war as well. But the issue of incompetence isn't central to the point Gellman makes about Cheney's role in launching the Iraq War. However poorly he understood the bloody battlefield onto which he was leading the country, Cheney sincerely believed that the 2003 invasion was both desirable and necessary. Yet he helped President Bush take the United States to war without revealing to the Congressional leadership, much less to the public at large, his genuine reasons for thinking so.

For Gellman, such behavior provides additional proof, if any were needed, that Cheney's "concept of democracy was at the far elite extreme." The vice president's rationale for the invasion of Iraq, as Gellman and others have reconstructed it, was shared only with like-minded colleagues in and around the White House. It was based on the assumption that, after the cold war, the principal threat to national security was a "nexus" of terrorist organizations, illegally proliferated weapons of mass destruction and rogue states. Decentralized and clandestine, this nexus remains dauntingly difficult to destroy. Given the sheer elusiveness of terrorist organizations and illegal weapons-smuggling channels, US counterterrorism forces had to concentrate after 9/11 on the third link in the chain: rogue states. Unlike smuggled nuclear matériel or clandestine terrorist operatives, rogue states are easy to pinpoint on a map and vulnerable to overwhelming firepower. Yet most of the rogue states consorting with terrorists or known to possess WMD are unappealing candidates for an American attack. Launching a "pre-emptive" war against North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, as the decision-makers in Bush's inner circle understood, risked destabilizing economically vital and politically precarious regions of the world.

By process of elimination, they concluded, the only rogue state with some observable ties to WMD and terrorist groups, and where a hostile government could be successfully toppled without triggering a major international crisis, was Iraq, a country ruled by a widely detested homicidal clan. Removing Saddam would not automatically strengthen the hand of the United States against the dreaded nexus, but it would "send a powerful message" to the genuinely dangerous rogue states. The message was that the US military could, at a moment's notice, physically annihilate any ruling group that failed to bring under control weapons proliferation and terrorism within its country's borders.

If the immediate purpose of the invasion was exemplary punishment of Iraq for behavior vaguely analogous to behavior that, if it occurred, would truly threaten the United States, it's no wonder that such a rationale was never made public. Cheney's assumptions about a multistage, regionwide and even global intimidation effect were so tenuous and speculative that they might never have survived an open public debate. The same, or worse, can be said about his numerous public insinuations that Saddam was intimately involved in 9/11. (It now appears that in April 2003, Cheney urged American interrogators to waterboard a captured Iraqi intelligence officer, not to extract intelligence for preventing a future attack but to provide evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link to justify a war that had already been launched.) Whatever Cheney was thinking or plotting at the time, his actions reflected a characteristic principle of Bush-league raison d'état: duplicity is a small price to pay for the chance to go to war.

To explain the workings of Cheney's power, many commentators have focused on his eccentric understanding of the Constitution rather than his predilection for sordid tactics of deceit. On multiple occasions since 1974, when as a member of the White House staff he witnessed the humiliating denouement of the Nixon presidency, Cheney has publicly endorsed the theory that the president, relying on his powers as commander in chief and head of the executive branch, can "defy explicit prohibitions of law." That is, when the United States is at war in a legal sense, the president may disregard as unconstitutional any statute he finds cumbersome. According to this expansive view of presidential discretion, statutory restrictions on executive authority, although they are especially abhorrent in times of national crisis, are nearly always detrimental in ordinary times as well. As Gellman explains, David Addington, Cheney's fabled consigliere in the Bush White House, played a pivotal role in sharpening and implementing this farfetched constitutional doctrine: "Addington's formula may have been the nearest thing to a claim of unlimited power ever made by an American president." But not much legal innovation was required on Addington's part. It sufficed to disinter the immoderate claims for unilateral executive power made by earlier administrations, especially by the partisan lawyers who worked under Richard Nixon.

Presidential say-so and self-oversight are the central tenets of Cheney's constitutional philosophy, if we can call it that. It follows that transparency statutes, such as the Freedom of Information Act, are unconstitutional infringements on presidential power. As Gellman summarizes this view, "Congress had no enforceable right to demand any information from the executive branch that was not already available to the public." Withholding information in the name of executive privilege is apparently legitimate even if it would thwart an ongoing criminal investigation. Important legal rulings to the contrary exist, admittedly, but they belong, in Cheney's view, to the fundamentally illegitimate Watergate-era assault on executive power.

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