Behold this unctuous knave, a disgrace to his nation as few before him, yet boasting unvarnished virtue. The deceit of Dick Cheney is indeed of Shakespearean proportions, as evidenced in his new memoir. For the former vice president, lying comes so easily that one must assume he takes the pursuit of truth to be nothing more than a reckless indulgence.
Here is a man who, more than anyone else in the Bush administration, trafficked in the campaign of deceit that caused tens of thousands to die, wasted trillions of dollars in resources and indelibly sullied the legacy of this nation through the practice of torture, which Cheney defends to this day. Still this villain claims that, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the horrid methods he endorsed were a necessary response to the threat of Osama bin Laden. How convenient to ignore that it was Barack Obama, a resolutely anti-torture president, who made good on the promise of Cheney and the previous administration to take down the al-Qaida leader.
Not to mention that bin Laden was killed in his hiding place in Pakistan, a nation that the Bush administration had befriended after 9/11 by lifting the sanctions previously imposed in retaliation for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, a program connected with the proliferation of nuclear weapons know-how and the sale of nuclear material to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
Pakistan joined with only two other nations, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government that provided a safe haven for al-Qaida as bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 attack. But instead of focusing on the source of the problem, Cheney led the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who had ruthlessly hounded any al-Qaida operatives who dared function in Iraq.
You don’t have to slog too deeply through Dick Cheney’s advertisement for himself to grasp not only the wicked cynicism of the man but also how shallow are his perceptions. He recalls his college years in the 1960s, when he was a draft-deferred young Republican during America’s murderous adventure in Vietnam—in which more than 3 million Indochinese and 59,000 Americans were killed—as a time of career advancement through strategic Washington appointments.
The war that left Martin Luther King Jr. condemning his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” is condemned in Cheney’s memoir only for the reactive violence that he attributes to anti-war student protesters. We are told, in a reminiscence of his days as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, that “in May 1969, students threw rocks and bottles at police trying to shut down a party on Mifflin Street,” but there is nothing of napalmed Vietnamese or U.S. troops in body bags.
That same May, young Cheney’s Republican contacts in Washington would pay off when he secured an appointment in the Nixon administration working for none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney recalls that he didn’t know he was “signing up for a forty-year career in politics and government—but that was exactly the right call.”
Those 40 years, interrupted by a lucrative stint at defense contractor Halliburton, saw Cheney rise to become secretary of defense and later vice president, presiding over wars that put him in considerable conflict with Colin Powell. It is Powell—who was experiencing the reality of war in Vietnam at the time Cheney was winning bureaucratic battles in Washington—who is scorned in Cheney’s memoir as the hopeless dove.
It was the more cautious war veteran Powell who, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Iraq war, proved to be far more effective as a leader than Cheney, who was then secretary of defense. What is confirmed by Cheney’s memoir is that he seized upon the second Iraq invasion as a way of settling scores with his adversary by assuming the role of an ultra-militarist.
Powell, who, inside the administration, clearly opposed the invasion of Iraq—“If you break it, you own it”—was cast as a puppet who in a dramatic appearance before the United Nations lied to the world when he said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But despite Powell’s woefully misplaced sense of loyalty to President George W. Bush, Cheney is merciless in condemning the general for allegedly undermining the administration. Powell has fired back at what he termed Cheney’s “cheap shots” and reminds us that “Mr. Cheney and many of his colleagues did not prepare for what happened after the fall of Baghdad.”
It is not clear that Cheney is a true believer in military mayhem as much as he is an uncontrollable careerist who finds war talk a convenient tool for advancement. He seems to have no real sense of the cost of the Iraq War beyond what it might have done to hurt his own legacy. If his memoir has any enduring value, it is not as another offering of hollow excuses for an unjustifiable war but rather as a study in what the famed historian of European fascism, Hannah Arendt, termed the “banality of evil.”