Cheney vs The Past
Posted by Warren Strobel
The 200 or so journalists, policy wonks and former-officials-in-waiting for- the-next-Republican-administration gathered at the American Enterprise Institute this morning could be forgiven if they thought they had mistakenly wandered into a time warp.
This, after all, has turned out to be the week of The Past, where Washington's attention and the chattering classes are fixated, not on Change We Can Believe In, but on torture, interrogation, Guantanamo Bay, and wiretapping--ghosts from other calendar years, supposedly, come back to haunt us.
In the time warp that engulfed AEI's 12th floor conference room, Richard Bruce Cheney was still vice president of these United States. It said so, right there at the top of the text of his remarks distributed to the audience: "Vice President Cheney." Not Former Vice President Cheney. Or Richard Cheney, 46th vice president of the United States. Just Cheney, VPOTUS.
Those of us in the time warp could even see dimly into the future, thanks to a projection screen with a TV feed that showed a man named Barack Obama, looking very much like he might one day be President, speaking to a crowd who could not be seen. When this Obama character turned his head to the left on the screen, it produced the illusion that he was looking over at the empty podium, which awaited Vice President Cheney's arrival.
Vice President Cheney came to the podium, and it was immediately back to the good old days, as he unleashed a trademark snarky comment at that Obama fellow's long-windedness. Good morning, he told the crowd, "or perhaps, Good Afternoon." It was clear, he said, Obama served in the Senate, not in the House. "Of course, in the House, we have the five-minute rule."
In his opening remarks, Cheney proclaimed "The point is not to look backward." But for the next 36 minutes, the vice president did just that, stubbornly defending the national security decisions of the Bush administration, taking on all comers, and using language that left the audience unsure that an election in which his party and its key tenets were soundly repudiated had actually occurred at all.
"The key to any strategy is accurate intelligence," the vice president intoned, with nary a hint of irony. This from the man who was the lead proponent of the specious Iraq-al Qaida link; talked about meetings between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence operative long after they had been debunked; and said Iraq's insurgency was in its "last throes" when U.S. intelligence agencies were saying anything but. But no matter - in a time warp, anything is possible.
Cheney's narrative began and ended with the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001--a date and event he referenced no less than 25 times in a 16-page speech. For Cheney, the world is still the world as it was on that fateful and awful day. He recalled being whisked to a bunker below the White House as a plane (Flight 77, which would be crashed into the Pentagon) neared Washington. He acknowledged speculation "that I'm a different man after 9/11" -- that was 9/11 reference No. 7 by my count--and continued: "I wouldn't say that. But I'll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities."
Vice President Cheney had sharp words for how the Clinton administration--talk about the past!!--dealt with al Qaida's pre-9/11 attacks, and most students of counter-terrorism would agree with him to a point. But the first eight months of the Bush administration seem never to have happened. Those would be the eight months during which the Bush administration, focused on missile defense, North Korea, Russia, etc., almost never mentioned the words "al Qaida" or "bin Laden." Condoleezza Rice was due to give a speech in the morning of September 11, 2001 which made no mention of the Islamist terrorist threat.
In Vice President Cheney's world, it is still a world where the terrorists hate us for who we are--"hate freedom," his old boss, George W. Bush might say. It's still a world where we are in a global "war" against the evil-doers. (Never mind that many bright minds think that approach united our disparate enemies, Sunni and Shi'ite, secular and Islamic, Persian and Arab, and missed the counter-insurgency tactics needed to defeat Islamic insurgents). It's still a world where too much debate and discussion--too much democracy, perhaps--is weakness.
Terrorists "don't stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along," the vice president said. "Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for - our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted."
No one could accuse Vice President Cheney of being weak, or having shakened resolve, or of being distracted.
He delivered his speech, often with head hunkered down, and left the room so quickly it made your head spin--and no questions from the audience, thank you very much.
And then it was 2009 again. And that Obama fella was in charge.