Cheney's Main Fault
In the trailer for the documentary "The World According to Dick Cheney," which premieres on Showtime on Friday, March 15, the former vice president is asked four questions. After the first three, he answers instantly with his head held high. But when he hears the fourth question, he looks down. He repeats the question pensively: "My main fault?" Then he pauses. Finally, he says: "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my faults."
Deftly answered. That is his main fault.
It is the signature feature of his personality. The aggression, the determination and the unquestioned conviction all flow from his incapacity for self-criticism.
Cheney plays it as a strength. He said, "I don't lie awake at night thinking, 'Gee, what are they going to say about me?'" And "if you're not prepared to have critics ... then you're in the wrong line of work."
But that is a sly distortion. It's not a mark of strength to have critics. Any prominent idiot can have critics and — in a sane society, one hopes — does. Rather, it's a mark of strength to engage critics, to listen to them and reason with them. But that Cheney could not do, because he knew his ideas could not prevail in an open debate. They could prevail only through force, stealth and skillful maneuvering.
In 1992 — the last full year of the George H.W. Bush administration — the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was preparing the first iteration of the Defense Planning Guidance, to be issued after the end of the Cold War. Some officials were alarmed by the sharp change in U.S. strategy called for in the document, and the draft was leaked to The New York Times by (in the words of the Times) "an official who believes this post-cold-war strategy debate should be carried out in the public domain."
The guidance downplayed the 45-year emphasis on alliances that had helped win the Cold War and stressed the need for the U.S. to remain the world's dominant military power, resisting the rise of other powers — even allies. It asserted that the U.S. "must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
The goal, once you strip away the bureaucratic code, is chilling: world domination through unrivaled military power. Once the document was released, officials at the White House and State Department repudiated it. An administration official called it a "dumb report" that "in no way or shape represents U.S.
Eight years later, in 2000, the Project for the New American Century published a report called "Rebuilding America's Defenses." The introduction read: "In broad terms, we saw the project as building upon the defense strategy outlined by the Cheney Defense Department in the waning days of the Bush Administration. ... At present the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."
The wisdom of the quest for unrivaled power has been tested by history. The cost in lives and wealth and alliances and human dignity and national reputation is beyond calculating — and the benefits are fleeting.
Former Sen. William Fulbright wrote in 1994: "The British were able for a few decades to survey an empire over which the sun never set, but that did not make Liverpool a beautiful place to live in, nor did it make the children of Welsh coalminers healthy and strong; on the contrary, it consumed resources that might have gone for these purposes, and then after all, the sun did set on the British Empire."
George W. Bush, when campaigning for president, spoke of a completely different national security strategy. He criticized "sending our military on vague, aimless and endless deployments." He said: "Alliances are not just for crises — summoned into action when the fire bell sounds. They are sustained by contact and trust." He also said: "I'm not so sure that the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.' ... If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us."
Whether voters cast their ballots for Al Gore or George W. Bush in 2000, they didn't vote for the Cheney Doctrine, but that's what they got. Some argued that the aggressive foreign policy that brought us the Iraq War was a response to 9/11. No — the plans were laid in 1992. Sept. 11 was not a reason; it was an excuse.
In the documentary, Cheney says, "If I had to do it over again, I'd do it over in a minute."
He has to say that. To say anything else would require a capacity for self-criticism. It would require a man who can bear the pain of doubt. That's not Dick Cheney. Cheney had total conviction, zero doubt, contempt for his critics and no scruples in the use of force.
A fascinating man. And the kind of leader democracy was designed to prevent.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at email@example.com. To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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