War Stories

The No-Dick Rule

Why former Vice President Cheney should no longer be allowed on network TV.

U.S.Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz watch the inaugural parade in front of the White House January 20, 2005 in Washington, DC.
Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz criticized President Obama on CNN this weekend.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

Dick Cheney should no longer be allowed to appear on network TV talk shows. The issue here is not one of ideology or censorship, but rather of compassion and pity. The former vice president has long been a disgrace to his political office; now he is also an embarrassment to himself.

The devolution hit bottom on Oct. 2, with Candy Crowley’s CNN interview of Cheney and his obeisant daughter, Elizabeth (transcript here). Asked about President Obama’s drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, Cheney called it “a very good strike … a very effective use of our drone technology,” but then added:

Thing I’m waiting for is for the administration to go back and correct something they said two years ago when they criticized us for “overreacting” to the events of 9/11. They, in effect, said that we had walked away from our ideals, or taken policy contrary to our ideals, when we had enhanced- interrogation techniques. Now they clearly have moved in the direction of taking robust action when they feel it is justified. I say, in this case I think it was, but I think they need to go back and reconsider what the president said when he was in Cairo.

After a few more exchanges of this sort, Crowley said, “You’d like an apology, it sounds like.” Cheney replied, “Well, I would.”

Have we ever had a vice president—especially one as powerful and putatively hard-headed as Cheney—who, after serving two full terms, proved himself so thin-skinned and peevish? Cheney makes Nixon, even in his darker days, seem almost dignified.

More than that, Cheney is simply wrong on multiple counts, and in ways that heighten the impression that we’re dealing with a feeble, foolish man. Let us parse the ways.

First, in claiming that Obama has adopted Bush administration policies he’d once criticized, Cheney seems to believe there’s no difference between, on the one hand, torturing captured detainees and, on the other hand, “taking robust action” (as, he allows, Obama has done) against an avowed enemy of the United States who has done our people harm and is in a position to do more.

This is just silly, and not just for the obvious reason. For one thing, it’s not at all true that Obama has only recently “moved in the direction of taking robust action,” as Cheney put it. In March 2009, barely two months after taking office, Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan and, at the end of that year, 30,000 more. He doubled Bush’s rate of “drone” strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. He authorized the use of force against Somali pirates at sea. Under his command, U.S. troops, commandos, and pilots have killed hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, not least of all Osama Bin Laden himself.

One might disagree with some of these actions, but it’s ludicrous to claim Obama has until recently been a softy. As far back as August 2007, fairly early in the race for the Democratic nomination, Obama was asked if he would consider bombing al-Qaida camps in Pakistan, with or without the consent of then-President Musharraf. “Let me make this clear,” Obama replied. “There are terrorists holed up in those mountains that murdered 3,000 Americans. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, and if President Musharraf will not act, we will.”

Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, then the Democratic and Republican front-runners, criticized Obama for threatening to bomb an ally, as they put it. Some of Obama’s campaign advisers suggested he backpedal, but he held firm.

The second way in which Cheney displayed his self-destructive tendencies was his charge that Obama weakened our national image when he told students in Cairo that the policy of “enhanced interrogation” marked an abandonment of America’s core principles. Cheney said:

That sends a signal out there to the world where U.S. stature does matter, where our position in the world and our ability to influence events and make progress, for example on Mideast peace, turns very much on how people look at us. If you’ve got the president of the United States out there, saying we overreacted to 9/11 on our watch, that’s not good.

Liz Cheney added that Obama’s speech “did tremendous damage. I think he slandered the nation and I think he owes an apology to the American people.”

Obama delivered his speech at Cairo University on June 9, 2009, as part of his effort to mend U.S. relations with moderate Muslims. Yes, he did say that the 9/11 attacks provoked a “fear and anger,” which “in some cases … led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals,” adding that he was now “taking concrete actions to change course,” for instance banning the use of torture. But he also spoke out, at much greater length, against violent extremism by al-Qaida and other jihadist groups; he derided many Muslims’ attempts to stereotype Americans; he defended the right of Israel to exist; and he insisted that he would not hesitate to use force to defend the United States and its allies.

It was a remarkably measured speech. Cheney should read it sometime to see what statesmanship looks like.

The real eyebrow-raiser here, though, is the fact that the Cheneys are criticizing Obama for damaging America’s image in the world. As dozens of senior U.S. military officers and even a good number of Republican lawmakers have attested, America’s image was most grievously damaged in the past decade by those policies that Cheney most avidly endorsed while vice president: the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, the expansion of Guantanamo Bay, and, above all, the water-boarding of detainees.

McCain, who rarely passes up a chance to criticize the Democrat who crushed his last hopes for the White House in the 2008 election (but who also knows something about torture), had the good grace to defend Obama against Cheney’s charges, noting in his own CNN interview, on Oct. 3, that “quote ‘enhanced interrogation,’ i.e., torture” (as he crisply put it) was “one of the great recruitment tools” that swelled the ranks of al-Qaida. McCain also noted that, whereas the drone attack on Awlaki had been authorized by Congress and approved by the Justice Department, torture is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and by a Senate resolution that passed 90-6.

One more bit of shamelessness. When Crowley observed that Obama “certainly has killed more [terrorists] than were killed in the Bush administration,” Cheney replied, “Right, but we developed the technique and the technology for it.”

This simply isn’t true. The Predator drone, the first “unmanned aerial vehicle” to carry both a video camera and a smart bomb, was developed during the Clinton administration. It was successfully tested with a Hellfire laser-guided missile in January 2001, just before Clinton left office. The Air Force mission statement for the weapon noted that it would be ideal for hitting “fleeting and perishable” targets—a phrase that could refer to tanks on a battlefield or terrorists on the move. Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counterterrorism chief, sent a memo to Condoleezza Rice, President-elect Bush’s incoming national security adviser, recommending “going forward” with the weapon and the new missions it made possible.

Finally—and here we’re getting to the nub of the matter—Cheney talks as though Obama’s actions and policies vindicate the Bush administration. In fact, he’s slaying imaginary dragons in a personal battle that he lost long ago.

It was George W. Bush who decided to stop water-boarding detainees in 2006, halfway through his second term as president—and against Cheney’s recommendation. It was Bush’s Justice Department that boasted of indicting 512 accused terrorists in civilian criminal courts—against Cheney’s urgings that they be tried before military tribunals. (By the time Bush left office, prosecutors had won 319 convictions, with the remaining cases yet to be heard. Military tribunals, by contrast, had resulted in one conviction.) It was John McCain, who in 2005 sponsored the amendment that passed 90-6, banning “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and limiting interrogation techniques to those in the Army’s manual (which explicitly excludes torture).

In Cheney’s mind, Obama is the bête noir of national defense who first defiles the glorious legacy of his predecessor, then revives it without giving due credit or apologizing for the earlier slander. But all this is entirely in Cheney’s mind, from start to finish. It is time to let him retire in peace with his pension, his royalties, his wondrous pacemaker, and his fantasies.