Back in 1991 it was ‘treasonous’ for Jimmy Carter to work to prevent a war with Iraq, and in 2002 Al Gore and others were lambasted by the right for trying to slow the process of going to war with Iraq. You don’t act in a way that undercuts a President’s foreign policy, you certainly aren’t supposed to suggest that a President’s actions are making the country less safe. Apparently Dick “Darth” Cheney believes that only applies to attempts to “undercut” war efforts. Working to undercut diplomacy is another matter. I suspect that in the view from the Dark Side undercutting diplomacy is good because it makes war more likely.
As I’ve noted before, I’m not one of those who believes George W. Bush to be bad; I’ve praised his ability in his second administration to recognize that initial policies in Iraq had failed and adjust. He also, according to numerous reports, soured on Vice President Cheney’s foreign policy perspective, realizing that he was impervious to the possibility that events were proving him wrong. Bush displayed the capacity to recognize error and change direction. By the end of his administration I found myself having sympathy for the President. He had sacrificed everything for the war in Iraq, believing it would spread democracy and make America safer, and even though he realized he was wrong and changed directions, that one error in judgment — goaded on by the Sith warriors around him — would haunt his legacy forever. Who knows what he might have accomplished if not for the way in which Iraq swallowed his Presidency and destroyed his domestic agenda.
Cheney, however, is another story. Reading Bob Woodward’s account of the 1991 Iraq war, operation Desert Storm, it becomes clear that then Defense Secretary Cheney was not only the hawk’s hawk, but also someone with a disdain for Congress and the democratic process. Having been Chief of Staff to President Ford in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, Cheney had experienced the White House at its least powerful. The Democrats had a huge majority in Congress, and President Ford was leading a wounded administration. At that point, it seems, Cheney embraced the dark side. Congress came to be not the tool of democracy, but the enemy of the Executive Branch. The goal was power in a zero sum game and if he was part of the Executive Branch, he wanted to make sure the power was there.
When President Bush announced that Cheney would serve as Chair of his Vice Presidential search committee, I was relieved. I had heard his name mentioned at a possible VP, and that made me nervous. But Chair of VP Search committees never get themselves named as the Vice Presidential candidate. Somehow, Cheney managed the process not only in a way that got him the position, but he was praised as adding ‘gravitas’ to the Bush candidacy. Bush was inexperienced at foreign policy and national policy, but Cheney had been Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush.
Cheney also helped assure that so-called neo-conservatives like John Bolton got high positions in government, and after 9-11 he knew how to appeal to the fearful mood of the nation and President Bush’s idealist notion of spreading democracy to push for an aggressive foreign policy. Gen. Wesley Clark reported seeing plans to invade seven countries in five years in order to reshape the Mideast. Bolton and Cheney rejected CIA intelligence and created their own pseudo-intelligence office. Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, would ultimately be the one victim of the Palme affair, convicted of perjury and being forced from his position.
With Cheney still extremely influential, the most fatal and damaging decisions of the Bush Administration were made, as the young and still inexperienced President relied on his Vice President for advice and motivation. As Bush learned more about the war and how government works Cheney’s influence waned. But the damage had been done, even as the President turned to Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice to try to find a way to minimize the impact and find a way out of the quagmires.
During this time Cheney was mostly silent. He was the most secretive member of the administration, getting his house wiped off google earth, refusing to release numerous documents, and even being secretive about the nature of his job. Cheney made the phrase ‘undisclosed location’ famous. Now, however, he has found his voice and uses it to attack the policies of the Obama administration.
Perhaps the most disturbed about this are Republicans. Cheney has become the least popular and least trusted politician in America. If he is the face of opposition to Obama, it has to help Obama. And Cheney isn’t sticking to Republican talking points like fiscal discipline, taxes, and liberty. He’s making his stand defending methods that are considered torture by many. He’s trying to recapture the mode of fear that existed in 2002 — fear feeds the dark side after all!
Perhaps he’s hoping for a new terror attack to put his kind of fearful aggression back in vogue. Perhaps he simply hasn’t come to grips with the fact his approach to post 9-11 policy has been shown wrong headed and he is widely seen as a failure. Maybe he’s hitting Obama because nobody else is, and he has nothing left to lose. His punches have no sting, however, they just provide more material for comedians like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.
When one looks at the rhetoric of the far right — talk radio and right wing blogs — it is often angry and vehemently anti-Obama. It is common to hear about the ‘downfall of America’ and ‘death of American values,’ something only the most extremes of the left said about Bush. Maybe our Sith Warrior Darth Cheney hopes for a rebirth of the fear and anger that might lead the country to embrace aggression and efforts to silence opposition. It’s possible.
Yet I suspect most Republicans as well as Democrats would prefer to focus on the important issues facing the country. That includes serious opposition to Obama — his deficits are huge, there are concerns about the nature of government intervention in the auto industry and the nature of the financial bailouts. There are real questions to ask about policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as how to contain or engage Iran. Because, Darth Cheney’s fear mongering not withstanding, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent the “dark side.” It isn’t good vs. evil as far as American politics is concerned, but overwhelming good intended folk of different perspectives and beliefs trying to work out what’s best for the country. That’s what works.
UPDATE: I’ve been informed that I have my Star War references wrong, that when someone else compared Cheney to Darth Vader, George Lucas replied that the correct comparison is to the Emperor.