Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney | The Nation


Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney

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To skip time-consuming consultations, Cheney's team erected a series of impenetrable barriers between executive branch agencies that hindered multiagency cooperation, assured that knowledgeable parties with a stake in the outcome had no voice in decision-making and prevented the ultimate decision-makers from hearing objections before setting unvetted policies in motion. This was a highly paradoxical strategy. For one thing, the vice president's defenders have frequently blamed the government's failures in the run-up to 9/11 on the "wall" between law enforcement and intelligence gathering. So why did it make sense, from a national security perspective, to set about building more walls within an executive branch determined to combat terrorism? Why overcompartmentalize policy-making and stonewall executive branch experts who happened to disagree with the president's objectives of the moment, especially during emergencies?

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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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While repeatedly outfoxing rivals within the executive branch, Cheney also made sure that those who disagreed with his policies could not return the favor by ambushing him or pulling off faits accomplis of their own. "In the first term most White House staff members were unaware than many of their e-mails were blind-copied to Cheney's staff," Gellman writes. This curious practice of intraexecutive spying by the OVP, incidentally, also displays Cheney's opportunistic and unprincipled attitude toward the confidentiality of communications.

And Cheney's deviousness did not end here. According to Gellman, the vice president sometimes even "blindsided" the president--"the Decider"--himself. There were "moments when Cheney took the helm...without the president's apparent awareness," even though, as Gellman remarks, Bush's legendary impatience with detail made him morally complicit in his vice president's usurpations of power. In May 2003, as Gellman reports, Cheney even succeeded in getting a capital-gains-tax reduction passed against Bush's explicit directives. As usual, Cheney achieved his aims by the secretive use of surrogates. Gellman says that "Cheney needed proxies because it would be bound to get out if he lobbied for the capital-gains cut directly. He was backing a substitute for the president's proposal. Hardly anyone, in or out of the White House, knew that." He exalted the unity of the executive branch in theory, in other words, but was quite willing to disregard the hierarchical organization of that unity in practice. The same lack of deference toward his nominal former boss has resurfaced in Cheney's acerbic commentary on the Obama administration, which contrasts sharply with Bush's respectful post-presidential silence.

Cheney's strategies of anonymity and deniability, executed through his network of enablers, also betray the flimsiness of the autocratic philosophy he and his defenders have invoked to support his bureaucratic power games. As Gellman notes, Cheney repeatedly cited Alexander Hamilton's "Federalist No. 70" as an authority for his belief that the executive branch, to exploit its institutional capacities for secrecy and dispatch, must be freed from interference by Congress and the courts. Cheney's reading of "Federalist No. 70" is curiously selective, however. The essay's principal focus is the importance of designing government institutions to prevent executive officers from shirking responsibility by acting anonymously. Hamilton argued that having a single president, rather than a multiheaded executive, will make it possible "to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or series of pernicious measures, ought really to fall." The parallel government that Cheney established in OVP, by contrast, is a classic example of undemocratic pluralism within the executive. Just as Hamilton surmised, such a multiheaded arrangement fatally obscured the authorship of calamitous policy failures: we still do not know who made the disastrous decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army.

Eventually, Cheney's power began to wane. During Bush's second term, Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates as secretary of defense, and the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, launched a diplomatic initiative toward North Korea. Gellman tries to explain this gradual unraveling of Cheney's mystique by invoking Nemesis, who in Greek tragedies punishes those who suffer from hubris. The uncanny lack of self-doubt that gave Cheney a tactical advantage over his rivals may, indeed, have defeated him in the end. His manipulation of evidence and argument as tools for working his will on others may have over time led him to undervalue the role of evidence and argument as checks on himself.

More specifically, his stealthy end runs around Attorney General John Ashcroft in March 2004 (orchestrated without Bush's knowledge) fueled a "near-calamitous rebellion at Justice," Gellman writes. While Ashcroft was being hospitalized for acute gallstones, the acting attorney general, James Comey, Ashcroft's deputy, refused to reauthorize Cheney's cherished program for warrantless domestic surveillance. Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card, Bush's White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively, went to Ashcroft's hospital room and tried to badger him into reversing Comey's decision. Ashcroft refused. More than thirty attorneys at Justice threatened to resign over the White House's treatment of Ashcroft, a scandal averted only when Bush made some unspecified concessions on domestic surveillance. This skirmish is one example of how during the Bush years conflicts between and among executive branch agencies had a greater impact on national security than conflicts between the executive and Congress or the executive and the courts. Arrogance also triggered a backlash when the vice president's politically unsustainable assertion of "absolute presidential discretion to declare a U.S. citizen an enemy and lock him up without a lawyer or a hearing" shocked an otherwise deferential Supreme Court into issuing a handful of decisions that, in Gellman's opinion, spelled "a calamity for Cheney's war plan against al Qaeda."

But perhaps the most telling example of fatefully self-destructive overreaching was Cheney's attempt to punish former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for insinuating publicly that the vice president had fabricated evidence in an attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq. The story, a revenge tragedy, is well known. On July 6, 2003, four months after the invasion of Iraq, Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times disputing the claim that Saddam had tried to purchase enhanced uranium yellowcake from Niger. Bush, Cheney and others had made this claim in the course of arguing that Saddam's WMD posed a serious threat. To tarnish Wilson, and intimidate anyone else who might be tempted to challenge publicly the vice president's good faith, Cheney arranged for his politically savvy deputy, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to leak the confidential information that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent (seeking out WMD, no less) and to insinuate that Wilson's evidence of Cheney's dishonesty was tainted and discredited by nepotism.

Having stiff-armed Ashcroft's deputy attorney general, James Comey, one too many times, Cheney was helpless when in December 2003 Comey appointed the hard-driving federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Plame leak. More generally, although he was vividly aware of the risks of inaction, Cheney failed to think clearly about the risks of action or the unintended consequences of the demonstrative use of power. By dispatching Libby on a covert operation to discredit Wilson, he set in motion a process that led to Fitzgerald's indictment of his right-hand man and, eventually, to Libby's conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. It was a self-inflicted wound caused by a disproportionate, not to say obsessive, focus on a secondary danger. (Why Bush rebuffed Cheney's last-minute pleas to pardon Libby has still not been publicly revealed. That the president may have been rebelling belatedly at his nominal subordinate's devious and imperious style cannot be excluded, however.) Nemesis seems to have been triggered by oversimplification; condescension; intolerance of criticism; an irresistible need to act; a fatally selective picture of a highly complex threat environment; and an intuitive, basically irrational, setting of priorities.

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