Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dick Cheney and his bunker doormat

Generally speaking, a vice president’s best job perk is that he gets the inside track to run for president when the boss steps down. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore…they all served as understudies before becoming presidential nominees.

But contemporary Republicans can breathe a collective sigh of relief that Dick Cheney has no interest in perpetuating that tradition in 2008.

His appearance last night on Larry King’s CNN show was characteristically cringe-worthy. It’s probably a given at this point that most Americans pay little attention to what he says, particularly when a doormat like Larry King is asking the questions, but I’ll recount the interview anyway, if only to assess the fact-challenged mentality, and willful state of denial, that persists inside the Bush administration bunker.

But first, here’s the abridged version: Cheney said we are making “significant progress” in Iraq, and called the war “a very significant achievement.” He lauded attorney general Alberto Gonzales as “a good man, a good friend,” and said repeatedly that he doesn’t “recall” whether in 2004 he had dispatched then-White House lawyer Gonzales to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed, in a bid to save the warrantless surveillance program that Justice had deemed illegal. And when asked whether he is pleased that the Iraqi parliament is taking August off, he replied, “It’s better than taking two months off.” (As for his claim of "significant progress" in Iraq, it should be noted that the largest Sunni Arab political bloc decided today to pull out of the "national unity" government. That translates into the imminent departure of six Cabinet ministers. Isn't the Surge supposed to be creating the conditions for political reconciliation?)

Now let’s go to the videotape, with italicized annotations.

KING: “How do you deal with it when public opinion polls are stridently against the policy we have?”

CHENEY: “The polls are notoriously unreliable, in the sense that they change all the time, they bounce around all over the place.”

Actually, the polls have been very reliable, as gauges of public sentiment; during the runup to the ’06 congressional elections, they registered growing anti-GOP sentiment, and that sentiment was borne out in November, when Cheney’s party was thrown out of power on Capitol Hill. And the polls don’t “bounce around all over the place.” Over the past three years, every poll, from Gallup to Fox News, has reported a consistent downward slide in the Bush regime’s popularity.

KING: Regarding Iraq, “don’t you ever say, ‘maybe I’m wrong’?”

CHENEY: "No, I think what we do is…weigh the evidence. And there’s a lot of debate and discussion. We went through the exercise at the beginning of the year. (Regarding the troop surge) we talked to a wide number of people with a variety of viewpoints, met with the Joint Chief of Staffs, talked to outside military experts…”

Actually, they limited the range of opinions by reshuffling the players. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was eased into an earlier retirement last winter after he expressed insufficient enthusiasm about the wisdom of a troop hike (“whether more U.S. troops for a sustained period will get us where we're going faster is an open question”). Nor did Cheney and his people listen to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, when he warned in testimony last November that “ It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.” Two months after stating that view, Abizaid was no longer in his job. As for Cheney’s reference to consulting “outside military experts,” it’s a matter of record that the Surge plans were drawn up by an “outside” experts housed at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

CHENEY: “There are always things in war that happen that nobody anticipated, surprises, things that don’t go exactly as planned. That’s the nature of warfare.”

Actually, the disasters that have befallen us in Iraq were widely anticipated. The problem was, Cheney and his neoconservative war team at the Pentagon simply chose to ignore those who were waving red flags. Larry King, naturally, failed to point this out. He could have cited the easy examples: Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s Chief of Staff, warned that a successful occupation would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers,” a remark that effectively cost him his job; or Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, who said that the war and reconstruction could cost upwards of $200 billion, and lost his job shortly thereafter. (The price tag is already at $500 billion and climbing.) But this is perhaps the best example: In the runup to war, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs spoke with Iraqi exiles and wrote thousands of pages about the potential problems in postwar Iraq, covering everything from electricity to sectarian violence – but Cheney and his people ignored it. As a disenchanted administration official told author George Packer in 2003, the war team’s mindset “isn’t pragmatism, it isn’t Realpolitik, it isn’t conservatism, it isn’t liberalism. It’s theology.”

CHENEY: “The real test is whether nor not the (Surge) strategy that was put in place for this year will in fact produce the desired results.”

KING: “Will those results be in place on that day in ’09 when you leave?”

CHENEY: “I believe so. I think we’re seeing already – from others, don’t take it from me, look at the (New York Times) piece that appeared yesterday…by Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack on the situation in Iraq. They’re just back from visiting over there. They both have been strong critics of the war, both worked in the prior administration, but now saying that they think there’s a possibility, indeed, that we could be successful.”

Cheney was referring to Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack, scholars at the Brookings Institution. But the description of those guys as “strong critics of this war” is accurate only in the fabulist recesses of Cheney’s mind. I can’t fathom where he came up with that one. O’Hanlon was writing pro-war commentaries in the conservative Washington Times even before Bush invaded Iraq ("Saddam Hussein may be poised to bring the battle to American cities via terrorism,” he warned in December 2002; two months later, in the wake of a Bush speech, he wrote, “the president was still convincing on his central point that the time for war is near…It is now time for multilateralists to support the president”), and in October 2003 he even testified on Capitol Hill in support of Bush: “In my judgment the administration is basically correct that the overall effort in Iraq is succeeding.” As for Pollack, he is well known in foreign policy circles as a stalwart supporter of the decision to invade Iraq; in fact, he called for an invasion one year before it happened. Larry King didn’t mention these basic facts, either because he wasn’t suitably briefed, or because he was inattentive.

KING: “A member of the Department of Defense sent Hillary Clinton a letter, saying she should not criticize, because it helps the enemy. Do you agree with that letter?”

CHENEY: “Didn't say she should not criticize. She was demanding the plans for withdrawal from Iraq.”

KING: “Do you agree with that letter?”

CHENEY: “I agreed with the letter Eric Edelman wrote. I thought it was a good letter.”

KING: “So (she) should not call for the plans for withdrawal?”

CHENEY: “No, there's an important principle here, Larry, and that is -- and a debate over what our policy ought to be is perfectly legitimate. What we don't do is we don't get into the business of sharing operational plans -- we never have -- with the Congress…to respond to the political charges, such as those that Senator Clinton made, I think would be unwise.”

KING: “Two other things…”

Oops, Larry missed another great followup opportunity. He could have framed it this way: “How do you square your refusal to brief the Senate on war contingency plans with the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates considers it important to brief the Senate on war contingency plans? And isn’t that a mixed message by this administration?” Just last week, Gates told Clinton in a letter that “I have long been and continue to be an advocate of congressional oversight…I would be pleased to work with you and the Senate Armed Services Committee to establish a process to keep you apprised of the conceptual thinking, factors, considerations, questions, and objectives associated with drawdown planning.” But Larry had more pressing business, such as asking Cheney about his new heart deibrillator.

KING: “Does it pain you” that you are so often criticized?

CHENEY: “Not especially…When (Bush) is finished, I’m finished. We walk out of here on January 20th of ’09, and I think we’ll be able to hold our heads high…”

No annotation required.