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The Guardian/UK

Living with Cheney's Poisonous Legacy

Nine years on, 'war on terror' policies still haunt the US and its allies. Who will stand up to challenge the ex-VP's recklessness?

AC Grayling

The former US vice-president Dick Cheney is almost as busy now as he was when he was running the United States and its wars. Most of his effort, repeated and of course unchallenged on Fox News last Sunday, is devoted to an open and unapologetic defence of torture, aka "enhanced interrogation techniques", which he says have "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people".

He should have said "other people" or "more people", because thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people have indeed died as a result of the full-scale Bush-Cheney wars unleashed in response to the 9/11 atrocities, as if fighting crime with crime, mass murder with mass murder, was the obvious and right thing to do.

The result? Nine years on in Afghanistan the latest commander of the Nato forces is this week asking for 20,000 more US troops – nine years on, and escalation: sound familiar? – while in Iraq the convoys taking US military equipment out of the country as part of the drawdown are under threat from Iran-influenced Shia militias on the road south to Kuwait, and under threat from Sunni insurgents on the road west towards Jordan and Aqaba.

Cheney and Bush thought they were planting the firm footprint of the American Colossus in the desert sands of the Middle East, to hold sway there in control of its turbulent and unreliable spirit; instead they have placed 150,000 soldiers and billions of dollars of equipment into the jeopardy of quicksands, surrounded by hostile millions, in the process empowering its enemies in the region and destabilising its friends. Iran has gained, Pakistan has lost, Hamas and Hezbollah have gained, America has lost.

And dragged tumbling on the coat-tails of this foolish enterprise, confected by ideologues in the fat-insulated comforts of Washington armchairs, is Little Britain in the flap-eared shape of Tony Blair, missal in one hand and missile in the other.

I met a captain in the US Marines who told me how much he admired the courage and supreme professionalism of the British forces he liaised with in Iraq when he was last there. That was good to hear. But is there still a justification for their involvement in Afghanistan? Why are we still there? The standard answer is: to stop al-Qaida or its clones from having a base of operations. But al-Qaida is comfortably and mainly safely now ensconced in Pakistan. I would defend a fight against Taliban-style religious fanatics for the purpose of rescuing that half of the Afghan population denied education, opportunities and minimum rights, namely the female half.

But Hamid Karzai's government and its western backers seems to have no interest in this; just before the quasi-election last week Karzai signed a bill legalising rape of wives by husbands, to placate the Neanderthal religious tendency which dominates almost all factions in the country, not just the Taliban.

But the corrosive effects of the Cheney-Bush epoch on the world are not limited by the borders of the Middle East. In fact the US's own borders have become a place of malediction because of them. On 26 August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding access to records concerning the US customs and border protection policy of searching the laptop computers of any traveller even if there are no grounds for suspicion regarding him or her. CPB agents can look at anyone's bank details, personal files, record of websites accessed, contacts, family photos, indeed all and any personal and other documents stored on a laptop, at will and with impunity, in the absence of any prior reason for doing so.

One attorney working for the ACLU's First Amendment Working Group said, "Travelling with a laptop should not mean that the government gets a free pass to rifle through your personal papers. This sort of broad and invasive search is exactly what the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches are designed to prevent."

Attorney Larry Schwartztol of the ACLU's National Security Project added, "Innumerable international travellers have had their most personal information searched by government officials and retained by the government indefinitely. The disclosure of these records is necessary to better understand the extent to which US border and customs officials may be violating the Constitution."

Hats off to the ACLU. It stands between the better traditions of the US and the efforts of Cheney-Bush to talibanise it after their own fashion. The question is: how long will the poison of the Cheney-Bush years keep on seeping through the veins of the US and the world, given that what they started seems so difficult to stop?

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AC Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. His latest books are Towards the Light: The Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West and The Choice of Hercules: Duty, Pleasure and the Good Life in the 21st Century.

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