Things would have been better for George W. Bush
had his vice president just been more, well, vice presidential. In a modest,
supportive role, as an influential facilitator of the president's policies rather
than an aggressive shaper of them, Cheney could have remained both worthy of
respect and suitably distant, as would appear to befit his job profile and his
professional experience. As such he could have put his personal stamp on the
office, in the manner of predecessors such as the earnest technocrat (Al Gore)
or the hapless comic sidekick (Dan Quayle).
Alas, Cheney adopted another persona entirely: that of the malevolent power
behind the throne, becoming the man of a thousand undisclosed locations
and constant apocalyptic admonitions to war without end. Becoming the president
in everything but name, Cheney and the neocons with whom he sympathized crafted
the disastrous war in Iraq that is now dragging down Bush's second term.
That Cheney would seek such a role isn't hard to understand. After all, when
candidate Bush once upon a time asked the elder statesman to suggest a possible
running mate, Cheney nominated himself. In various other fields of human endeavor,
such opportunism from a trusted elder would be seen as crass exploitation. To
this day it remains unclear as to whether George W. Bush knew exactly what he
was getting into by taking Cheney's advice – and whether the former even considered
that someday he might need to be gotten out of it.
Writing in the Financial Times on Dec. 2, Philip Stephens states succinctly
how the uncompromising stance of the vice president in upholding the CIA's right
to torture at will has ruined the credibility of America (that alleged shining
example of democracy and human rights) abroad. For Stephens, the government's
"denials" of running covert torture operations "are rendered
virtually worthless by the stance of Dick Cheney, the vice president."
Noting that Cheney
would like to exempt the CIA from legislation against "cruel, inhuman,
and degrading treatment" of detainees, Stephens poses this rhetorical question:
"Why would the CIA need an exemption, if it did not employ torture?"
Of course, Cheney does have his supporters – though they don't include the
majority of senators or congressmen or the majority of Americans
in general. The main ones are the neocons, whose ruthlessness
and pathologies are
well known already. Aside from them, torture-supporters include those patriotic
sorts who dare not withhold any weapon from the government's arsenal if it'll
help win the war against the terr'ists faster (as
if torturing people ever expedited the acquisition of a truthful answer,
However, while the sponsor of the legislation, John McCain, will
not move an inch from his position on the moral high ground, neither will
Cheney, a scoundrel holed up in the last refuge of amorality.
Is it this battle, then, that could finally result in the removal of the Bush
administration's dark overlord? Is Dick Cheney, in his truly outrageous defense
of an indefensible principle incompatible with all American values (not to mention
in his role in both the Plamegate
scandals) being forced to hunker down in an ideological and political Alamo
of his own making?
For George W. Bush, part of the good fortune of being perceived as a blank
slate is that he can be erased and rewritten endlessly. The average person will
always have some measure of sympathy for his mediocrity, because the mediocre
is usually not too far from home. Sheer malevolence is another story. Despite
all the disaster and death Bush's wars have brought over the past few years,
my guess is that the average Joe would probably not mind having a beer with
George W. But it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to sidle up to the bar next
to Dick Cheney (except maybe Judith
That Cheney has thus far survived despite it all owes first to the administration's
conventional wisdom that internal discord is a sign of weakness, and that termination,
implying terminal discord, thus means terminal weakness. This is why
the president continually refused to allow gentle Secretary of Death Donald
Rumsfeld to resign following the Abu
Ghraib torture scandal and the disastrous course of a war that the latter
had incompetently planned. However, despite the indictment of his chief of staff,
the vice president has so far brushed aside all criticism. It looks as if Cheney
is going to fight early termination all the way.
If it really is a siege, it looks like Cheney's planning to take a lot of people
with him – whether they want to go or not. Perhaps Stephens was overly optimistic
in arguing that Condoleezza Rice, allegedly the most powerful secretary of state
in the modern age, is going to neutralize the influence of the most
powerful vice president of all time, a man who can bend
whole constitutions single-handedly and effortlessly deflect political missiles.
Because at this moment, Rice is being put through the wringer over the latest
torture-related scandal to hit the administration – alleged secret American
torture camps in Europe and elsewhere.
On a fence-mending tour of the Continent this week, Rice has been forced to
defend the indefensible – a position that Cheney still relishes. In fact, Rice's
tactic has not been simply to deny the allegations (though there has been some
of that), but to actually argue for the legitimacy of American actions. As she
"robustly defended the CIA's extrajudicial seizure, transportation, and
interrogation of thousands of suspects," reports
the Times (UK) online, Rice "responded to European demands for
explanations of secret CIA flights from EU territory by insisting that aggressive
U.S. actions had 'prevented attacks in Europe' and 'saved innocent lives.'"
And, while denying that American treatment of detainees does not technically
amount to torture, she refused specific comment – using the same old code of
secrecy: "We cannot discuss information that would compromise intelligence,
law enforcement, and military operations."
The Europeans aren't buying it, however. From Italian
indignation to German
inquiries into terror flights to British
incredulity over Rice's refutations that "defy belief," it is
clear that America's policy is being met with revulsion by its oldest allies.
And, while the Bush administration's vision of spreading democracy globally
is allegedly underpinned by universal values common to all humans, Rice
doesn't seem to think so:
"[T]he captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into
traditional systems of criminal or military justice, which were designed for
different needs. We have had to adapt."
All of this nonsense Rice is now faithfully spouting is nothing other than
Cheney logic and Cheney policy, Cheney secrecy and Cheney deceit. So it hardly
seems that the secretary of state is making a sea change in the administration's
course. Rather, it would seem that Cheney is not planning to give up quietly,
and if he is forced to, will take the administration with him.
Indeed, that Rice is now being portrayed as a match for the grim overlord is
a testament merely to the times and the ways. She owes her job to the hard-fought
victory of Cheney and the neocons over her predecessor, Colin Powell. But that
was a tag-team effort, and in any case, Rice is no Colin Powell.
If, as is often mentioned, the neophyte President Bush needed to hold someone's
hand upon entering office, he certainly picked the wrong person's, especially
considering his apparent predetermination to wage foreign wars. Powell, after
all, was the experienced military man and a voice of relative moderation and
responsibility. Cheney (ironically, the one who had had "other
priorities" when asked to serve in Vietnam) was the voice not of reason
the military-industrial complex. From over on the
Dark Side of the Force, the old
man delights in predicting that the death and destruction his policies have
wrought will keep on killing for decades after he (no doubt peacefully) passes
Back in 2003, when Powell was still serving, Sen. Joseph Biden characterized
White House interpersonal dynamics thus:
"[L]ike with a horse, Powell is always able to lead Bush to the water.
But just as he is about to put his head down, Cheney up in the saddle says,
'Un-uh,' and yanks up the reins before Bush can drink the water. That's my image
of how it goes."
With Rice faithfully spouting Cheney's policy to the Europeans, and the vice
president apparently prepared to fight any and all critics, it looks as if the
horse has been ridden away from the oasis and straight into the Alamo. If Cheney
has to go out in a blaze of glory, he's trying to ensure that he won't go out