Monday, January 15, 2007

Dick Cheney goes for the gut

It was instructive yesterday to hear Dick Cheney expound at length on the Iraq war, during his visit to Fox News. He actually performed a valuable public service, by reminding all Americans that he is still the power behind the throne, and that he and the members of his neoconservative network are still determined to use that power as they see fit, even though the ’06 voters signaled otherwise.

The neoconservatives who originally sold George W. Bush on the alleged virtues of a regime change in Iraq have been somewhat diminished by the misadventures of the past four years, but many are still ensconced in Cheney’s office, and they hold a number of key positions on the National Security Council. They are also influential at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, which helped develop the troop escalation plan.

Their determination to proceed has not been shaken by the adverse public mood, nor by the inconvenient truths of empirical reality – as evidenced by Cheney’s defiant comments on Fox, notably this one: "I think if you look at what's transpired in Iraq, we have, in fact, made enormous progress."

If Democrats and restive Republicans on Capitol Hill truly want to gauge the seriousness of the impending battle over Iraq policy, they might be well advised to study the Cheney transcript. It was patently obvious that he is the engine that powers the Bush vehicle. He is the steel in Bush’s spine. Even after a decisive repudiation on election day, he is still willing to say the things that not even Karl Rove is saying these days – notably, that anyone who assails the Bush administration’s troop escalation plan is merely validating “the al Qaeda view of the world.”

That was one of his sound bites yesterday. There were many others, including his argument that the current debate over Iraq is more about anatomy than ideology. To wit: “If the United States doesn’t have the stomach to finish the job in Iraq, we put at risk what we’ve done in all of those other locations out there…We have to prevail, and we have to have the stomach for the fight…(Al Qaeda is convinced that) the election campaign last fall, all of that, is evidence that they’re right when they say the United States doesn’t have the stomach for the fight…”

Perhaps most Americans would forego the Pepto Bismol if they had substantive reasons to be confident about the workability of the troop escalation plan that Cheney helped to hatch. (New reasons to feel queasy, here.) But, beyond assuring host Chris Wallace yesterday that the Bush administration has been “very direct” with the oft-recalictrant Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, Cheney refused to say what the U.S. would do if the escalation plan flops and the bloodshed continues unabated.

“Time will tell,” said Cheney. “We’ll have to wait and see.” (Translation: There goes another year.)

Wallace then asked, “What do we do if (Maliki) doesn’t live to his promises” – namely, to go after the murderous Shiite militias that are controlled by his Shiite allies? Wallace basically asked whether Bush and Cheney have a Plan B.

Cheney replied: “I’m not going to get into that, Chris. We’ve got a good plan.”

Wallace, to his credit, then asked a variation of the same question. And Cheney replied, “I’m not going to go beyond what I’ve said. We’re focused on making this plan work.”

Wallace tried again: “But it’s not an open-ended commitment?”

Cheney: “We’re focused on making this plan work.”

And perhaps stomachs would not be so queasy if most Americans had confidence that an error-prone administration was suddenly exhibiting more competence. On the contrary, Cheney made it clear yesterday that he would prefer to rewrite history rather than acknowledge past error.

A number of experts, for instance, have faulted the Bush war team for failing to anticipate or combat the burgeoning sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. But Cheney’s view, expressed yesterday, is that none of this violence occurred “until the spring of ’06,” after al Qaeda operatives bombed a famous Shiite religious landmark.

Cheney’s claim, however, is factually inaccurate. There was plenty of evidence in 2005 that Shiite death squads were precipitating sectarian violence – thanks in part to the Shiite government that came to power in the wake of the January ’05 “purple finger” elections. Here’s one passage from a Knight Ridder article, on Feb. 27 of that year: "Shiite Muslim assassins are killing former members of Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni Muslim regime with impunity in a wave of violence that, combined with the ongoing Sunni insurgency, threatens to escalate into civil war. The war between Shiite vigilantes and (Sunnis) is seldom investigated…”

But perhaps the most revealing moment occurred midway through the interview when Wallace asked Cheney about the recent election day verdict: “By taking the policy you have, haven’t you, Mr. Vice President, ignored the express will of the American people in the November elections?”

Cheney: “I don’t think any president worth his salt can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls. The polls change every day – "

Wallace: “Well, this was an election, sir.”

Cheney: “Polls change every day, week by week…You cannot simply stick your finger up in the wind and say, ‘Gee, public opinion’s against; we’d better quit.’”

Consider that exchange for a moment. One can certainly have a legitimate debate over whether policies should be subjected to a popularity contest; indeed, John F. Kennedy (with great assistance from his ghostwriter Ted Sorenson) won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Profiles in Courage” which lauded some political leaders who had followed their consciences rather than popular opinion. But Cheney’s offhand dismissal of elections in general – equating them with fluctuating public opinion polls – is another matter entirely. His comments should serve as fair warning to administration critics that he and his ostensible superior in the White House will never feel compelled to change course in Iraq just because the will of the people wishes it so.

Cheney made it perfectly clear yesterday that Democrats and dissenting Republicans on Capitol Hill will get nowhere if they merely pass non-binding resolutions condemning the troop escalation (“it would not affect the president’s ability to carry out his policy”). He essentially signaled administration critics that only a fight over the purse strings, or an outright constitutional clash, would really get his attention.

The White House seems fully prepared for a confrontation, lawyering up for a court showdown over the national security prerogatives of the commander-in-chief. The Democrats, by contrast, are not. The big question, as Democrats chart their own new way forward, is whether they will have the “stomach” to take on the likes of Dick Cheney.