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We Read the Dick Cheney Reviews So You Don’t Have To

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Friday, September 2, 2011 at 11:52 PM

Judging from his new book, In My Time, former Vice President Dick Cheney probably won’t be participating in the Lawfare 10th Anniversary Project, which is devoted to acknowledging error and second thoughts. But judging from the commentary on it, a lot of others seem eager to write Cheney’s entry for him.

For excerpts from his book, go to the Wall Street Journal.

The following is my collection of reviews of the book, with Lawfare-pertinent sections excerpted for reader convenience.

Robert Kaiser, an associate editor at the Washington Post, finds that “the only real point of writing about the vice presidential years is to make clear how right Cheney always was, and how wrongheaded were his critics and bureaucratic rivals.” He both highlights gaps in Cheney’s account of events and also notes what Cheney does address:

Cheney does not ignore his instrumental role in promoting the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that President Obama, John McCain and many others have concluded were torture, but he refuses to engage in any debate about whether they constituted a departure from traditional American values. He simply declares that they did not: “The United States has never lost its moral bearings,” he assures us. For Cheney, as he tells us repeatedly, “9/11 changed everything.” But he never asks just how or why.

Cheney’s principal preoccupation, in his account of his vice presidency as it was during his time in office, is Hussein and the war in Iraq. Here, too, he avoids a great deal. For instance, he simply insists that there were important connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda before 9/11 that justified making the invasion of Iraq part of the War on Terror (always capitalized in this book). No intelligence agency has ever endorsed that view, despite Cheney’s personal, herculean efforts to push the CIA into doing so. He never comes to grips with the fact — so frustrating to him, obviously — that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. He recounts aspects of his own role in stoking the fires for war but ignores many of his most famous personal gaffes.

In The Economist’s point of view, the book (or perhaps the man) is “[m]ore vice than virtue.” This review contrasts Cheney’s role to the one that Vice President Biden has played in the Obama administration, while noting usefully that they both did drop the f-bomb in public during their time in office. Its bottom line:

Mainly, however, Mr Cheney’s Vaderish reputation rests on his enthusiastic advocacy of the most controversial policies of Mr Bush’s presidency. He remains unapologetic to this day about curbing civil liberties after September 11th, 2001 and about invading Iraq on the mistaken premise that it was brimming with weapons of mass destruction. There is not only no problem, in his view, with waterboarding or Guantánamo, but not even much to discuss. They were serving a useful purpose, some lawyers had been found to sign off on them, and that was that. Questions that have consumed America for years, such as whether the authorities should have been more primed for September 11th, do not even merit a mention in his book.

Mr Cheney’s only regret seems to be that not everyone in the Bush administration was always as farsighted and steadfast as he, and so balked at bombing Syria or adopting tougher stances with North Korea and Iran. Colin Powell, Mr Bush’s first secretary of state, is portrayed as a sulking saboteur; Condoleezza Rice, his successor, as a bumbling appeaser. Even Mr Bush had his lapses in the vice-president’s eyes: he decided to go along with twitchy lawyers in the Justice Department, for example, when they questioned the legality of a counter-terrorist eavesdropping scheme.

Kori Schake at Foreign Policy’s  Shadow Government Blog writes that while Cheney advocated for policies that were and are necessary for our security and points to President Obama’s continuation of many of those policies as proof of their importance, his approach damaged the administration, and by extension, conservatives today:

The most damaging example was Cheney’s vociferous support for reclaiming executive authority instead of working with congressional leaders to pass legislation that would demonstrate broad political support and establish the basis for judicial review. It freighted terrorism policies with the added requirement of subordinating the other branches of government. As Ben Wittes… has often argued, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress — as the authorizations for the use of military force showed — and much that needed to be achieved could have been achieved with skillful engagement of the machinery of American democracy.

Executive privilege had consequences beyond setting solid foundations for sustaining the policies, too. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor powerfully argued at West Point in 2005, it left the U.S. military in the unfair position of being both “our combatants and our conscience,” because the executive and legislative branches of government failed to provide them the proper framework for their actions.

But Cheney displays a contempt for Congress and those who don’t agree with him to an extent that is unhealthy in a free society. The former vice president is now a private citizen. Conservatives who are public citizens, engaged in running for office and crafting policies, would do well to remember how much Cheney’s approach hurt both the president he served and the causes he sought to advance. Having the right answer isn’t good enough. The president and his cabinet must also engage the levers of democracy to build a broad base of support, especially when the policies have few good alternatives. His legacy has made it more difficult for conservatives to support and enact the very policies he advocated.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also alleges that a plethora of assertions in the book come without support:

Mr. Cheney writes that “the liberation of Iraq” was “one of the most significant accomplishments of George Bush’s presidency” — never mind the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were cited as a chief reason for the invasion, or a botched occupation that allowed an insurgency to metastasize for years. He describes Guantánamo as “a model facility — safe, secure, and humane” and writes that the C.I.A.’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “safe, legal, and effective.” As for Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Cheney praises President Bush for “personally” dedicating “hundreds of hours not only to ensuring an effective federal response but to reaching out to people who needed to know that their government cared about them.”

Maureen Dowd is still less forgiving:

He acts like he is America. But America didn’t like Dick Cheney.

It’s easier for someone who believes that he is America incarnate to permit himself to do things that hurt America — like torture, domestic spying, pushing America into endless wars, and flouting the Geneva Conventions.

Mostly, Cheney grumbles about having his power checked. It’s bad enough when the president does it, much less Congress and the courts.

A person who is always for the use of military force is as doctrinaire and irrelevant as a person who is always opposed to the use of military force.

Cheney shows contempt for Tenet, Colin Powell and Rice, whom he disparages in a sexist way for crying, and condescension for W. when he won’t be guided to the path of most destruction.

He’s churlish about President Obama, who took the hunt for Osama bin Laden off the back burner and actually did what W. promised to do with his little bullhorn — catch the real villain of 9/11.

“Tracking him down was certainly one of our top priorities,” Cheney writes. “I was gratified that after years of diligent and dedicated work, our nation’s intelligence community and our special operations forces were able on May 1, 2011, to find and kill bin Laden.”

Reuters’ Caren Bohan notes that the book is a testament to how much the national security has evolved since 9/11:

On counterterrorism policies, one of Obama’s first acts when he took office in 2009 was to disavow harsh interrogations and promise to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — although the detention center remains open to this day because the administration has struggled with a lack of feasible alternatives.

In his book, Cheney puzzled over Obama’s view that the facility harms America’s image in the world even though Bush himself expressed sympathy for that perspective in a 2006 news conference in which he said he would prefer to close Guantanamo if an alternative could be found.

“It’s not Guantanamo that does the harm, it is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it,” Cheney writes.

Victor Davis Hanson appears to be the most open-minded about the book, and doesn’t believe that the concerns raised by many people about it–specifically with respect to the attacks on Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice especially–are entirely accurate. He defers to Cheney on interrogation, using the evidence disclosed by KSM as a point of reference:

Of course, his popularity suffered terribly from the nonstop media focus over the water-boarding of the three admitted terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, between 2002 and 2003, and his refusal to admit such treatment was torture. I opposed those techniques, but we still do not have the complete record of the information that came from KSM et al. — though National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair has since said “high value” information came out of it — and by now we have forgotten the sense of impending attack and mayhem that followed after 9/11.

The fact that President Obama, to his credit, has reversed course — keeping Guantanamo open and embracing renditions, tribunals, detentions, wiretaps, intercepts, Predators, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — ironically will more than anything put into context the ad hominem attacks on Cheney and the allegations that most of such protocols were both superfluous and anti-constitutional. That we were not attacked again after 9/11 through 2008 was in large part due to many of the things Cheney insisted upon. I wish that he had discussed in greater depth the administration’s disastrous decision not to stick with all the 23 writs of the October 2002 congressional resolutions authorizing force to remove Saddam. There was no need, when one reads those bipartisan authorizations, to focus almost solely on WMD — which, of course, liberal senators as diverse as Rockefeller and Biden were worried about. Cheney was too, but had invested in regime change on more than twenty other counts.

Dahlia Lithwick finds Cheney’s memoir most useful in reminding us all that it’s not his opinion about torture that matters necessarily, but that the law did not hold him accountable:

But the real lesson of In My Time is not that Cheney “got away with it,” though I suppose he did. It’s an admonishment to rest of us that the law really matters. The reason Cheney keeps saying that torture is “legal” is because he has a clutch of worthless legal memoranda saying so. Cheney gets away with saying torture is “legal” even though it isn’t because if it were truly illegal, he and those who devised the torture regime would have faced legal consequences—somewhere, somehow. That’s the meaning of the “rule of law.” That, rather than whether America should torture people, is what we should glean from the Cheney book.

It’s currently fashionable to believe that political and ideological battles are “real,” and it is the law that is empty symbolism. But Cheney stands as an illustration of the real-life, practical value of the law. Torture really did become legal after 9/11, and even after it was repudiated—again and again—it will always be legal with regard to Dick Cheney and the others who perpetrated it without consequence. The law wasn’t a hollow symbol after 9/11. It was the only fixed system we had. We can go on pretending that torture is no longer permissible in this country or under international law, but until there are legal consequences for those who order or engage in torture, we will only be pretending. Cheney is the beneficiary of that artifice.

Lithwick takes issue with those who say that Obama simply adopted these and other national security law policies from the Bush administration, pointing to Conor Friedersdorf’s recent article in response to Cheney’s book. She writes:

Zev Chafets’ provocative piece in response to the Cheney memoir is called “We Are All Cheneyites Now.” He contends that because “Obama has largely adopted the Cheney playbook on combating terrorism, from keeping Gitmo open to trying suspected enemies of the state in military tribunals” that Cheney’s policies have been thoroughly vindicated and we all live in Cheney’s America. I disagree and not just for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf lays out—namely, that Obama has repudiated or refined more Cheney policies than he has embraced—but because we are not all Cheneyites in a more fundamental sense: Most of agree that we should not be a nation of torturers, and that torture has tarnished the reputation of the United States as a beacon of justice. Most of us do not want warrantless surveillance, secret prisons, or war against every dictator who looks at us funny. We may be bloodthirsty, but we aren’t morons. On his most combative and truly lawless positions, Cheney still stands largely alone.

 

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