Nightmare on Cheney Street

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

Horror movies usually follow the same script. The monster — whether genetically modified, abused as a child, or flown in from Alpha Centauri — picks off the frightened teenagers one by one. After many thrills and chills, the hero drives a stake through the heart of the beast. Finally, just as we’re finishing off the last of our popcorn in relief, the not-quite-dead monster makes one last attempt to dispatch the hero. It fails, but not before we’ve dumped popcorn all over our laps.

If Wes Craven decided to make a horror movie out of the last year of U.S. politics, he would definitely cast Dick Cheney as the monster that can’t be silenced. The former vice president is Leatherface, Jason, and Freddie Krueger all rolled into one: lawless, methodical, and unpredictable with firearms. He’s had more sequels than Chucky: White House chief of staff, House minority whip, secretary of Defense, CEO of Halliburton, vice president, and now rogue pundit.

In the last presidential elections, the voters repudiated the Cheney legacy. But like Glenn Close in her final scene in Fatal Attraction, Cheney’s not yet down for the count. As the various TV appearances and his speech last week at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) suggest, he’s still got some fight in him.

Frankly, Barton Gellman’s book Angler should have KO’d the man politically. Here’s a guy who not only stage-managed the vice-presidential search for George W. Bush and then took the position himself, but also extracted confidential information during the search process that he subsequently used against his potential adversaries. Here’s a guy who assembled the crack legal team (or was it a legal team on crack?) that provided the constitutional argument for expanding executive power, upending domestic and international law, and justifying torture. Here’s a guy who created a real secret team inside the Bush administration that bypassed the State Department, Congress, and all normal procedures.

And yet, like Nixon emerging from the grave of Watergate, Cheney has sought to rebuild his reputation as the national security conscience of his party. “On the question of so-called torture, we don’t do torture,” he argued in a December interview on ABC. “We never have.” He defended the intelligence data that the administration cooked in order to persuade the country to go to war against Iraq. He declared the “global war on terror” still on and Guantánamo still indispensable.

But last week, he went further. At AEI, he attacked The New York Times for uncovering his secret surveillance program that collected untold amount of information about U.S. citizens and should have outraged every privacy-minded conservative in the country. He argued that “enhanced interrogation techniques” provided critical information that prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. He warned the Obama administration of closing Guantánamo and bringing terrorists “inside the United States” as though President Barack Obama were about to release them on the streets of New York. It was a speech, to quote Cheney himself, that reeked of “recklessness cloaked in righteousness.”

The AEI speech, like Cheney’s performance as vice president, was rife with misstatements and calculated distortions. As journalists Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel point out, the CIA inspector general, FBI director, and director of national intelligence all concur that there is no proof that the information gained through torture thwarted any attacks. The Abu Ghraib abuses were not, as Cheney claimed, the result of a few sadistic guards but the result of orders from top administration officials. Most of those detained in Guantánamo haven’t been “ruthless enemies of this country” but innocent people or low-level combatants without any valuable intelligence.

If you don’t believe journalists — because you think, as Cheney implies, they don’t have the best interests of the country at heart — consider the perspective of the chief U.S. interrogator in Iraq, Matthew Alexander. “Torture and abuse became Al Qaida’s number one recruiting tool and cost us American lives,” Alexander writes. “Our greatest success in this conflict was achieved without torture or abuse. My interrogation team found Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq and murderer of tens of thousands. We did this using relationship-building approaches and non-coercive law enforcement techniques.”

Of course, Dick Cheney has never been particularly interested in the truth. He wants to achieve his goals. And it appears that he’s having some effect.

By rallying the conservative forces and putting pressure on invertebrate Democrats, Cheney has influenced national policy. The Senate refused to appropriate money for the closure of Guantánamo and the transfer of the prisoners held there. Obama has refused to support a truth commission. More ominously, the Obama administration is now working out its own policy of “preventive detention” — indefinitely holding people that can’t be charged and tried in U.S. courts — that violates fundamental American legal principles. In his speech at the National Archives last week, Obama defended his important departures from Bush-era policy (end of torture, closure of Guantánamo) but also showed the influence of Cheney in his emphasis on war, “taking the fight to the extremists,” and military commissions.

Liberal commentators have generally been enthusiastic about Obama’s caution. Just check out The Washington Post‘s liberal stable: David Broder praised Obama and Cheney for both opposing a truth commission; “Obama has mostly called it right,” observes Ruth Marcus; and E.J. Dionne, Jr. is delighted at the resurrection of Cold War liberalism. Cheney makes Obama look good. But he also pulls the president further to the right.

Cheney isn’t just fighting for his principles. He’s fighting for his career and those of the team that bent the Constitution to their will. No one expects that the villains in horror movies will observe Marquess of Queensberry rules. The same applies to the former vice president. Expect more down-and-dirty fighting from Dick Cheney. This is one nightmare from which we haven’t quite woken up.

Nightmare on Kim Jong Il Street

North Korea can’t let a U.S. holiday go by without offering its own form of celebration. In 2006, Pyongyang launched a rocket on July 4. This year, on Memorial Day, it decided to test a second nuclear weapon. Or, at least, that’s what the seismic data suggests. The first test three years ago was widely held to be a dud. This one might not have been much better.

Dud or not, the United States has to come up with a response. Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Brent Choi and Joowoon Jung argue in A More Expensive Bill for North Korea that the Obama administration should wield a bigger stick and dangle a larger carrot. It should offer to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang. And it should threaten to redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea. In North Korea and Malign Neglect, I argue that ignoring North Korea hasn’t worked in the past. The Obama administration should instead embark on an authentic policy of engagement as the only way to disempower North Korean hardliners and promote a more sensible agenda in Pyongyang.

Nukes or nice? Follow our debate in Strategic Dialogue: North Korea.

Nightmare on Recession Street

The horror movie that most people are facing these days is joblessness, foreclosure, and poverty. Will China save the global economy by using its own economic growth to pull the world out of recession?

FPIF columnist Walden Bello is skeptical. In Will China Save the World from Depression?, he points out that Beijing is sponsoring a stimulus package that, proportional to its economy, is larger than Washington’s. Much of that money is going to the countryside. “A significant portion of Beijing’s stimulus package is destined for infrastructure and social spending in the rural areas,” Bello writes. “The government is allocating 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) in subsidies to help rural residents buy televisions, refrigerators, and other electrical appliances.” But this isn’t enough. “Even if Beijing throws in another hundred billion dollars, the stimulus package is not likely to counteract in any significant way the depressive impact of a 25-year policy of sacrificing the countryside for export-oriented urban-based industrial growth,” Bello concludes.

Climate change isn’t helping matters. The poorest countries in the world will face the near-term consequences of global warming. The UN has created a fund to help these countries make the necessary changes now to deal with this problem. The fund only has about 10% of the funds needed to pay for the first round of changes.

“The United States, as the world’s richest country and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, didn’t pledge a single cent to this fund over the last eight years under President George W. Bush,” writes FPIF contributor Saleemul Huq in Bridging the Climate Gap. “This has left a significant credibility deficit for the United States that Obama and Congress need to address if they wish the United States to claim a leadership role at the global level on climate change.”

Where could the money come from? What about the Pentagon? The problem is, the Obama administration is proposing to increase military spending. “Wasting taxpayer money on dangerous, unnecessary, expensive military projects is more of an imposition on our grandchildren than spending money on health care or green energy — especially when the weapons programs don’t work properly. The Government Accountability Office has documented massive Pentagon waste. Why is Congress unconcerned?” asks FPIF contributor Steve Cobble in Conservative Hypocrisy on Military Spending.

Speaking of waste, how about that World Bank? FPIF contributor Bea Edwards reports on the lack of safeguards against corruption at the Bank and what we can do about it in World Bank Corruption.

Final Nightmares

Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu recently dropped in for a White House visit. The Obama administration has demanded that Israel stop building settlements, but Netanyahu is pressing forward on building homes in existing settlements.

The real nightmare scenario in U.S.-Israeli relations is Iran, though. “Netanyahu campaigned on and has continued to escalate his rhetoric threatening military force against Iran, sometimes framing it in the context of ‘what Israel will have to do if the United States does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,’” writes FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis in Netanyahu Visits the White House. “Netanyahu demands that the United States agree either to attack Iran if Obama’s potential nuclear diplomacy doesn’t work, or agree to support an Israeli attack on Iran”

Iran, meanwhile, is gearing up for an election next month. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going for a second term, a nightmare possibility in itself. But he faces stiff competition from a couple of moderates. “A reformist comeback would certainly substitute confrontational tactics and volatile rhetoric with moderation and reason,” writes FPIF contributor Bernd Kaussler in Iran’s Next Leadership? “Although the nuclear position will not shift, the United States will likely be able to engage constructively with a reformist government in Iran. But such a government will also have to deal with a hostile conservative parliament, and may have trouble delivering on the key issues needed internally in order to secure and maintain dialogue with the United States.”

FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek recently visited a nightmare: the Kibati refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He sends us a Postcard from…Goma that details the horrifying conditions.

And finally, FPIF contributor Tiffany Williams reviews a new book on yet another nightmarish condition: slavery in the United States. “Although the United States abolished slavery officially in 1865, it has never ended in practice,” she writes. “In 2009, slaves work in the homes of diplomats in Maryland and in the tomato fields of Southwest Florida. ‘There has never been a single day in our America, from its discovery and birth right up to the moment you are reading this sentence, without slavery,’ write renowned human trafficking expert Kevin Bales and respected historian Ron Soodalter in their new book The Slave Next Door.”

FPIF, May 26, 2009

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