Moderation Equals Suicide

The view from Dick Cheney’s bunker.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at the American Enterprise Institute 

The Alamo of American conservatism stands at the corner of 17th and M Streets in northwest Washington, D.C. The American Enterprise Institute resides here, and also the Weekly Standard. The neoconservative Project For the New American Century, incubator of the Iraq war, lived and died here. Its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, is parked next-door. So is the Committee on the Present Danger, another neocon organization previously committed to fighting the Cold War but repurposed in 2004 to fight the war on terror. What the corner of Haight and Ashbury was to the Summer of Love, 17th and M is to the Autumn of Pre-emption.

On this hallowed ground, President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq was at least partly hatched by AEI’s Iraq Planning Group (though in his new book The Gamble, former Washington Post defense correspondent Thomas E. Ricks gives principal credit to Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who resided 6,000 miles away in Baghdad). At one point, President Bush employed no fewer than 20 AEI think-tankers. Since the White House wasn’t available, it made perfect sense for former Vice President Dick Cheney to travel here to deliver a speech denouncing the Obama administration for going soft on terrorism.

Walking the half-dozen blocks to watch Cheney speak was a sentimental journey for me, because for the first few years I worked at Slate, our D.C. bureau was located here. The AEI building may seem an improbable home for a fledgling, slightly left-of-center Web magazine, but the late economist Herbert Stein, an AEI fellow, was a regular Slate contributor and brokered the deal. According to Slate legend, we lost the space at least in part because I wrote this 2000 column arguing—wrongly, it turned out—that Cheney’s wife, Lynne, an AEI scholar, would prove a severe handicap on the campaign trail. (Cheney himself, I noted, enjoyed “a certain bland respectability.” This was a very long time ago.) Or possibly it was because of this column, in which I called Lynne, whose husband had by now become vice president, a liar. The word around Slate is that our ejection also had something to do with my wearing shorts inside the AEI’s white-linen dining room. Everybody’s memory of this is hazy, most especially mine; I don’t remember being either rebuked or congratulated for these trespasses at the time (though I do recall being shushed once in that dining room by Michael Novak). At any rate, my personal memories of 17th and M are happy ones, and as I removed the “reserved” marker from my chair and settled in, I waved a fond hello to one or two warm acquaintances.

President Obama cleverly planned to pre-empt Cheney’s AEI speech, which was announced well in advance, by giving a speech of his own about his anti-terror policies at the same time. Even more cleverly, Cheney decided to wait until the president was done to begin his remarks. The audience sat wordlessly in the smallish cream-colored auditorium while watching a CNN webcast of Obama’s speech projected onto a pull-down screen beside the podium. The webcast was received without incident or comment. When the president was done, the screen went blue, and Cheney entered with Arthur C. Brooks, AEI’s president, who introduced Cheney by promising the audience it would hear “a quintessentially informed view.”

Cheney began by ad-libbing: “It’s pretty clear the president served in the Senate and not in the House, because in the House, we have the five-minute rule.” This prompted me to flip through the advance copy handed out of Cheney’s remarks and to note that it went on for 16 pages. I’ll leave extensive comment about the two speeches to John Dickerson  and Fred Kaplan and observe only that Obama’s struck me as pretty good and that Cheney’s struck me as pretty loony. Obama’s speech anticipated many of the arguments offered by Cheney and answered them; but although Cheney clearly meant this to be perceived as a debate, he did not reply to these counterarguments. Apart from the opening ad-lib, the only significant deviation I noticed from the prepared text came when Cheney said that “foremost in our minds” after 9/11 “was the prospect of the very worst coming to pass—a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction.” The prepared text had in place of “weapons of mass destruction” the phrase “nuclear weapons.”

In making this change, I can’t tell whether Cheney thought he was juicing it up or toning it down. On the one hand, “nuclear weapons” is more terrifyingly specific. On the other hand, “weapons of mass destruction” is a propaganda term (a logically meaningless one, as I’ve explained previously), and its widespread adoption within mainstream discourse remains a signal accomplishment of the Bush era.

The audience of about 500 people (perhaps 100 of them reporters) broke out into applause twice: once at the end, when it rose to its feet for a standing ovation, and once when Cheney stated the speech’s central theme:

The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the president is on the path of sensible compromise. But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States. You must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national-security strategy. When just a single clue that goes unlearned, one lead that goes unpursued, can bring on catastrophe, it’s no time for splitting differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people hang in the balance.

This is the right’s new doctrine: You compromise, you die. Cheney applied it to terrorism, and at least some Republicans are preparing to apply the same message to health care reform. Heading out to the elevator after the speech, I caught a glimpse of The Four Statesmen, Mark Balma’s enormous classical-style group portrait of former U.S. President Gerald Ford, Germany’s Helmut Schmidt, France’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing, and Britain’s James Callaghan. The painting commemorates the 1976 founding of the G-7, the multilateral gathering of finance ministers representing the world’s leading capitalist democracies. This was the sort of dull but worthy cause that animated AEI when I first came to Washington at the start of the Reagan administration. Under Brooks’ predecessor as president, Christopher DeMuth, AEI transformed itself into something altogether more edgy and daring. Now it has reached its apotheosis as the enemy of moderation. When Slate’s offices were here a decade earlier, the painting hung in the same spot, but waiting for the elevator I noticed something new. It was encased in an enormous protective glass shield. Does this monument to cooperation now require special protection, lest a resident fellow go after it with a pair of scissors?

AP Video: Cheney to Obama: No Compromise