Political memoirs are usually self-serving affairs, mixing rationalizations with score-settling. But Dick Cheney’s In My Time may become the new standard for this sorry genre, made even worse because it is almost devoid of newsworthy tidbits of information.
One of the few candid admissions that slipped through was the former Vice President’s brief acknowledgement that President George W. Bush had decided on the need for a “second resolution” in the United Nations Security Council to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq but failed to get it.
“When the president decided to try for a second resolution, I understood his reasons,” Cheney wrote, indicating that it would provide necessary legal and political cover for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “But our efforts to gather support for the resolution were unsuccessful, and on Monday, March 17, we pulled it down.”
In other words, the Bush administration recognized that its desire to invade Iraq had not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Bush floated this second resolution to spell out that authority but needed to yank it down because it was doomed to defeat.
Approval from the Security Council is a prerequisite under international law for giving legitimacy to an invasion. Still, after being rebuffed by the Security Council – though no formal vote was taken – Bush pressed ahead with the invasion, claiming that an earlier resolution, 1441, demanding that Iraq get rid of its WMD or face severe consequences, was sufficient legal justification for war.
That, of course, left Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a pickle because he had already destroyed his stockpiles of unconventional weapons and whatever his government did to prove the point – including submitting a 12,000-page report to the UN and letting UN inspectors look wherever they wanted – was not going to be enough to dissuade Bush, Cheney and Blair from invading.
Hussein might have expected that the UN, which was created after World War II in large part to prevent powerful nations from waging war on weaker ones, would intervene to prevent an unprovoked invasion, but the UN proved impotent in the face of U.S. determination to defy international law.
Cheney wrote that after Bush’s bid for a second resolution collapsed on March 17, 2003, Bush took to the television that night to give Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq. The U.S. press corps obsessed about the president’s deadline and largely ignored the behind-the-scenes U.S. defeat at the UN.
In the months and years that followed, as Iraq was consumed by horrendous violence and as hundreds of thousands of lives perished, Bush would insist that the Security Council indeed had approved the invasion under Resolution 1441 and – although that was untrue – the Washington press corps would never challenge the claim.
Lying with Impunity
Bush grew so confident that he could lie with impunity before docile journalists that on July 14, 2003, just a few months after the invasion when the facts should still have been fresh in everyone’s minds, Bush declared, “We gave him [Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
Facing no contradiction from the obsequious White House press corps, Bush repeated this lie in varied forms until the last days of his presidency. It became one of Bush’s favorite refrains that Hussein “chose war.”
Cheney’s memoir fits well within the self-serving “reality” that Bush and his neoconservative advisers fashioned for the U.S. press corps and the American people.
In Cheney’s view, pretty much everyone on the Bush-43 team did just splendidly while anyone who wasn’t on the team – including some erstwhile teammates like Secretary of State Colin Powell – deserved only disdain or worse. Bush’s infamous formulation – “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” – seemed to apply, in Cheney’s mind, to skeptical Americans as well as foreign leaders.
And that perhaps is the most significant insight from Cheney’s book, the danger to the American Republic and the planet from people like Cheney who don’t seem capable of understanding the viewpoints of anyone who disagrees with them. It is less a political mind-set than one normally associated with cults.
Whatever Cheney and his allies do gets graded at from wonderful to at least defensible, while adversaries operate with the worst possible motives and are always wrong. Facts are selected to support these preordained conclusions.
So, for instance, there has long been a clear-cut case that right-wing Cuban terrorists Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles masterminded the 1976 in-air bombing of a Cubana Airline flight killing 73 people, including Cuba’s youth fencing team. Yet, for decades, U.S. authorities – especially members of the Bush Family – harbored both men, protecting them from extradition.
However, in Cheney World, the evidence that the Bush Family harbored terrorists wouldn’t compute. By definition – or at least by a well-entrenched double standard – it couldn’t be possible. Whatever Cheney’s side does is fine.
Yet, different rules apply to Cheney’s enemies. According to Cheney’s memoir, Saddam Hussein was guilty of harboring al-Qaeda operatives just because Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had a base inside Iraq and once traveled to Baghdad. Here is how Cheney frames the case:
Zarqawi “had arrived in Iraq in 2002, spent time in Baghdad, and then supervised camps in northern Iraq that provided a safe haven for as many as two hundred al Qaeda fighters escaping Afghanistan. At one of those camps, called Khurmal, Zarqawi’s men tested poisons and plotted attacks to use them in Europe.
“From his base in Iraq, Zarqawi also directed the October 2002 killing of Laurence Foley, a U.S. Agency for International Development officer, in Jordan.”
These elliptical connections between Zarqawi and Iraq are meant to create an impression for the weak-minded or the fact-deprived “proving” that Hussein had a relationship with al-Qaeda. However, the Zarqawi claim – though repeatedly endlessly by the Bush administration to the American people – was completely misleading.
Zarqawi’s base in northern Iraq was outside Hussein’s control and was protected by a U.S./U.K. “no-fly zone.” Hussein’s forces could not reach Zarqawi’s base – and curiously the Bush administration, which could have obliterated the camp from the air, made no effort to attack it.
As for Zarqawi’s visit to Baghdad, it was a secret trip to get medical treatment. It also turned out that Hussein, who was violently opposed to Islamic extremists like Zarqawi, had received an intelligence tip about Zarqawi’s presence and had dispatched secret police to capture him but they failed.
However, the Bush administration used the Zarqawi-Hussein myth as a key pillar in the case for invading Iraq – and Cheney dusts it off one more time in his memoir.
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The Bush administration built a similar house-of-cards case regarding intelligence on pre-9/11 contacts between Iraqi intelligence officials and representatives of al-Qaeda, who were hoping for some help from Hussein’s regime. What the administration – and Cheney – always left out of this construct was that Iraq rejected al-Qaeda’s overtures.
During the Bush administration, it became necessary to read whatever was said about Iraq and other foreign adversaries with a highly skeptical eye, not just regarding what was said but also what wasn’t said. Cheney’s memoir is a 565-page extension of that process.
Tarring a Critic
But foreign enemies were not the only ones to get this treatment. Out-of-step Americans were also tarred with a broad and ugly brush, as in Cheney’s depiction of Iraq War critic, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and the so-called Plame-gate Affair.
Plame-gate was a scandal in which the Bush administration reacted to Wilson’s debunking of Bush’s claim that Iraq had been seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger by smearing Wilson and exposing his wife Valerie Plame as a covert CIA officer.
Though Wilson was correct in stating that Hussein had not sought yellowcake from Niger and the exposure of Plame’s CIA identity destroyed her career, Cheney twists every nuance to make himself and his inner circle out to be the real victims here.
Cheney makes a big deal out of the fact that Bush attributed his claim to the British who indeed had made the false accusation about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium, but Bush’s British war collaborators were also partners in spinning lies to justify the Iraq invasion. The British lied, too, about Hussein’s capability to launch a chemical attack on 45-minutes notice.
The bottom line was that Iraq had NOT sought to secretly buy yellowcake uranium from Niger (whatever some people might have initially suspected) and that the CIA had reached that conclusion before Bush made his speech to Congress in January 2003.
What is also clear about the Plame case is that Cheney was the one who unleashed the Bush administration’s powerful assault against Wilson for daring to criticize Bush’s use of the false yellowcake claim. Cheney’s fury at Wilson was the driving force that led to Plame’s exposure.
Cheney was the one who fashioned the P.R. counterattack against Wilson by suggesting that his investigative trip to Niger in 2002 at the request of the CIA was a “junket” arranged by Plame. Cheney scribbled that point in the margin of Wilson’s New York Times op-ed in which the ex-ambassador describes his trip to Niger and his discovery that the yellowcake rumors were false.
This “junket” theme was then peddled by White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The fact that one of Rove’s friends, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was the first administration official to blow Plame’s cover to a reporter doesn’t change the fact that the White House was pushing the story, too.
The war against Joe Wilson also didn’t end with his wife losing her job at the CIA. The Right’s powerful media machine – and neocon editors at the Washington Post – turned Wilson and Plame into human piñatas to be whacked at for the rest of Bush’s presidency.
But none of that reality is in Cheney’s book. If you relied simply on In My Time to understand this case, you would conclude that the evil Joe Wilson was persecuting noble public servants in the White House, not that some of the most powerful people in the United States had targeted a political critic and, in the process, destroyed the CIA career of the critic’s wife. [For more details, see Neck Deep.]
What’s also striking about Cheney’s memoir is how it preserves the full flower of delusion from the Bush-43 era.
In Cheney World, President George W. Bush is one of the greatest presidents ever; the U.S. achieved “victory” in Iraq because of Bush’s courageous “surge”; Bush’s tax cuts and deregulation were massively successful; the United States is a flourishing society, except that once Bush handed this gem over to Barack Obama, the new president promptly crushed it.
One might think that a leading architect of the international and economic strategies, which have left behind two open-ended wars grinding inexorably toward American defeats as well as the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression and the largest federal deficits ever, would show some remorse for serious mistakes made.
But that may be the ultimate message from Cheney’s book, that reality itself no longer has a place in the U.S. political system, that politics is simply a matter of strong-willed people asserting a “reality” and then relying on powerful media allies to enforce that “reality.”
The separation of America’s ruling elite from reality – especially but not exclusively on the Republican side – was underscored by another tidbit of news that slipped into Cheney’s memoir, his recollections about his frequent meetings with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In one passage from summer 2006 as the Iraq War was going badly and military commanders were intent on drawing down U.S. forces, Cheney described his opposition to those plans and his determination that “we had to win first.” Cheney added:
“About this time Henry Kissinger visited me in my office at the White House, as he had done with some regularity since I had become vice president. … Henry began with Iraq and warned about the political dynamics of withdrawing forces.
“ ‘Once you start,’ he said, recalling his experiences with Vietnam, ‘the Democrats’ demand for more will never end.’ The issue would no longer be winning, but how fast we were withdrawing. ‘Withdrawals are like salted peanuts,’ he said. ‘Once you start, you can’t stop.’ “
If I’m reading that right, Kissinger’s message was that one should never start a military withdrawal, that once American troops are committed to some foreign adventure, they must stay until “victory,” whatever that’s supposed to mean in a place like Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan.
Kissinger’s concept would have meant that American troops would still be fighting and killing in Vietnam because “victory” there was never a realistic option. Cheney was determined to apply this “never start withdrawing” lesson to Iraq, too.
So, while Cheney’s memoir has little value for anyone looking for essential facts about what happened over the past decade – or for that matter what Cheney witnessed since the days of Richard Nixon – the book does carry an unintended message: that societies which elevate thin-skinned and close-minded people like Dick Cheney are headed toward destruction.