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Cheney Refuses to Admit He Was Wrong on Obama's Approach to War on Terror | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Cheney Refuses to Admit He Was Wrong on Obama's Approach to War on Terror

Vice President Dick Cheney responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by steering the United States into an even closer partnership with Pakistan, a country that had long been identified as a safe haven for the very Islamic jihadists Cheney claimed to abhor. Ahmed Rashid, the internationally-respected analyst of relations between Pakistan and the United States recalls that, in the years following the attacks, “(The) Bush Administration’s major policy decisions were run out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office with the help of Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney had a warm and personal relationship with Musharraf and did not want to see the United States take on the (corruption of the) Pakistani army when the United States was so preoccupied with Iraq.”

Cheney, who with his clique of neoconservative compatriots guided the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 in the months and years following the attacks, was determined to engineer an occupation of Iraq, which did not harbor al-Qaeda operatives. But Pakistan, long an operational base for extremists, faced no threat of occupation or even of accountability Instead, Pakistan got huge increases in U.S. military and humanitarian aid and massive structural support for the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, who used the U.S. money and military might to maintain his rule while contributing little of value to the war on terror.

“To maintain his power, with the approval of Bush and Cheney, Pakistan's then-president Musharraf cut deals with the religious parties that gave extremists succor, in particular the coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, or United Action Committee). Musharraf also barred the parties of his main democratic rivals, including the Pakistan Peoples Party led by the since-assassinated Benazir Bhutto (Zardari is her widower),” Mike Hirsh, the veteran diplomatic corrspondent, observed in a 2010 assessment for Newsweek of circumstances on the ground in Pakistan. “The result was that Islamism grew in power and influence under Musharraf's constantly deferred promises to reinstate genuine democracy, even as Washington delivered billions of dollars in aid.” But, surely, the U.S. was getting some juicy intelligence from Pakistan’s notoriously thorough and draconian spy network. Right? Wrong. “The Pakistanis were chronically stingy with intelligence,” continued the Newsweek assessment. “Critics such as Gary Schroen, the former CIA station chief, saw a pattern of giving up second-rate Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders only to ameliorate American mistrust, then retreating.” So what happened when candidate Barack Obama talked about getting tough with Pakistan? What happened when he spoke of going after terrorists inside the country Cheney made America’s top ally after 9/11? Cheney dismissed the Democrat as naïve and unprepared. With President Bush, he ridiculed Obama’s talk of tracking terrorists inside Pakistan. As the 2008 election approached, the vice president endorsed Republican John McCain as the candidate who, unlike Obama, “understands the danger facing America.”

After Obama’s election, Cheney continued to attack the new president’s approach to the war in terror in general and Pakistan in particular.

In February of 2009, Cheney complained that: "When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry."

In March of 2009, Cheney complained that Obama was taking actions that would "raise the risk to the American people of another attack."

In April of 2009, Cheney told Sean Hannity that the "Obama people" were abandoning "tough policies."

In May of 2009, Cheney appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to what he described as the Obama administration’s "half-measures" and said: "There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance." 

Throughout 2009, Cheney kept attacking Obama. The Los Angeles Times reported that: "Cheney, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Obama administration, said on CNN's 'State of the Union' last Sunday that Obama has increased the nation's risk of terrorist attacks by jettisoning key elements of the Bush administration's aggressive approach." 

"Now," Cheney said of Obama, "he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack."

Obama pushed back in March of 2009, asking in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes": "How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment." 

Cheney's banging on Obama featured such wild claims that in the fall of 2009 Vice President Joe Biden accused his predecessor of being "factually, substantively wrong."

The truth is that Obama carried forward much of what was flawed about Cheney's approach -- maintaining the occupation of Iraq, expanding the occupation of Afghanistan, disregarding the right to privacy and other constitutional requirements. But on Pakistan, Obama did change course.

Obama the candidate and Obama the president was attacked for that move by Bush and members of the Bush-Cheney clique.

And no one hit harder and more consistently than Cheney.

The former vice president kept attacking Obama, kept suggesting that the new president's approach was undermining the "war on terror" and making the United States less safe. It got so bad that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had to step in to say that Cheney's claims were "nor borne out by the facts."

That was a gentle rebuke.

And it did not end Cheney's attacks.

But Obama did not buckle in the face of the criticism; instead, he and his aides continued to alter relations with Pakistan, engaging in what analysts described as "intensive, hands-on diplomacy" that was aimed at getting more cooperation and more actionable intelligence than was obtained during the Bush-Cheney years.

In 2010, one review of "the turnaround" in U.S.-Pakistani relations -- characterized by increased sharing of information -- asked "whether this intelligence windfall will bring us any closer to the real prizes: Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, all of whom are still believed to be hiding in Pakistan?" Mike Hirsh answered: "American and Pakistani officials won't promise that just yet, but a senior U.S. administration official tells me, 'We're making them very uncomfortable.' And they expect more successes to come." 

When that success came on Sunday, Dick Cheney was quick to suggest that policies "we put in place back in our first term” had played a key role in the capture of bin Laden. In interview after interview, the former vice president spoke of the efforts as "a continuum" and suggested "a lot of the things that we did early on fed into this ultimate success."

"I think that means positive things too about the overall policy approach," said Cheney, who raced from Washington to New York in order to do a round of media interviews.  

He even told Fox News: "We need to keep in place those policies that made it possible for us to succeed in this case." 

But wasn't it Cheney who condemned Obama for abandoning the previous administration's approach and going a different route? Wasn't it Cheney who suggested that Obama was changing course in a way that would make America less safe and less successful in the "war on terror"? Yes, and yes.

Obama rejected the Bush-Cheney administration's failed approach to Pakistan, intelligence gathering and other aspects of the "war on terror" as a candidate, and was harshly condemned for doing so by Bush-Cheney and their media echo chamber.

Upon his election, Obama made dramatic changes in U.S. policy toward Pakistan and the "war on terror," changes that were identified as such. Cheney did not cheer the new administration on; he led the criticism of it.

Only now does Cheney appear to talk up Obama's supposed embrace of policies "we put in place back in our first term."

To be sure, Obama did embrace some the most flawed Bush-Cheney policies as regards Iraq, Afghanistan, warrantless wiretapping and other assaults on civil liberties. But those choices did little to assist efforts to track down Osama. What mattered was the new president's decision to shift policies regarding Pakistan in particular and intelligence gathering in general.

Cheney is trying to spin a fantasy here. The truth is, as that he steered U.S. policy in the wrong direction as regards Pakistan and key aspects of the "war on terror." The Obama administration changed course, and Cheney was a critic of the new approaches. Now that Obama's approach has achieved what the Cheney approach could not, the former vice president is playing his favorite game: rewriting history in his favor.

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John Nichols is the author of a critically-acclaimed biography of Cheney -- Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press).

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