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The Broken Clock

By (November 1, 2015) No Comment

Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful AmericaEXCEPTIONAL
By Dick and Liz Cheney
Threshold Editions, 2015

Bush the idiot and Cheney the puppeteer. These are the labels with which the Democrats bludgeoned their enemies during the first decade of this century, and they still hold purchase today. Like all labels they are too facile: George Bush was more simple than stupid, and Cheney didn’t always carry the day.

But there’s truth in them. Bush was obsessed with decisiveness and strength and knew very little about the world. Cheney was an expert operator: he headed Bush’s Vice Presidential search committee and selected himself, populated the major cabinet staffs with allies, and controlled the flow of paper (and sometimes visitors) to the Oval Office. His allies ran the Department of Defense and undermined the Department of State; they produced sophistical legal justifications for torture and transformed energy policy in secret. The former Vice President denies nothing except the suggestion that any of it was wrong.

Now Cheney holds no office and never will again. He gives speeches and appears on television and says awful things, but in light of the ruthless-progenitor-of-evil caricature that was slapped on him, Cheney seems like an echo of his former self. The dark, exaggerated depictions of Bush and Cheney always suggested a nadir—something then temporary (Presidents are term-limited, after all), something now gone—and that made them comforting. They still comfort today, and that is very dangerous, because in the context of the contemporary Republican Party, Dick Cheney is no extremist. Even more importantly, the ideological distance between Cheney and his political enemies is smaller than their rhetoric would suggest.

His new book is proof. The thesis of Exceptional (co-authored with his daughter Liz, a hack media commentator and failed Senate candidate), is coarse and unoriginal:

We are, as constitutional scholar Walter Berns put it, “the one essential country.” It isn’t just our involvement in world events that has been essential for the triumph of freedom. It is our leadership. No other nation, international body, or community of nations can do what we do. For the better part of a century, security and freedom for millions of people around the globe have depended on America’s military, economic, political, and diplomatic might. For the most part, until the administration of Barack Obama, we delivered…

…President Obama has diminished American power and retreated from the field of battle, fueling rising threats against our nation. He has pursued a foreign policy built on appeasing our adversaries, abandoning our allies, and apologizing for America… He has dedicated his presidency to restraining us, limiting our power, and diminishing us.

Apparently, Obama does this because he operates under the assumption that for everything wrong in the world, “America is to blame and her power must be restrained.” But this is “fundamentally counterfactual,” they write, because “We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.”

Cheney is only extreme in absolute terms; much of what’s quoted above is gospel in Washington. The fanatical tones of American exceptionalism, so grating to the rest of the world, come naturally to almost everyone in American public life; the belief that Obama hasn’t demonstrated strength and leadership abroad is a commonplace among conservative commentators and many Democrats as well. Writing recently in the National Review, Jim Geraghty spoke for the entire Republican party when he criticized “The president’s penchant for making abysmal deals with our enemies abroad and advertising his inability to affect the course of events.” In a September speech at the Brookings Institution, Hillary Clinton answered such criticisms by kind of agreeing with them: she promised to “sustain a robust military presence” in the Middle East, argued that it was a mistake not to support the protests in Iran in 2009 and the rebels in Syria in 2011, and said that she was one of those who “wanted to do more in reaction to the [Russian] annexation of Crimea.” Clinton does not believe the absurd idea that Obama is deliberately trying to weaken America, but she, and much of the Democratic establishment, share with their Republican counterparts the default assumption that these are problems which require the application of American power.

CheneyWhen it comes to the President, that may be the most substantial difference between the two poles of the hawkish Washington establishment: the Democrats find him well-intentioned and sometimes too soft; the Republicans think he’s ill-intentioned and always too soft. Hence the Cheneys’ endless, almost willful misreading of nearly everything Obama says. When Obama claims that reducing America’s nuclear arsenal “would give us greater moral authority to say to Iran, don’t develop a nuclear weapon; to say to North Korea, don’t proliferate nuclear weapons,” he is taken to mean, according to the Cheneys, that “The obstacle to effective diplomacy with Rogue states, in President Obama’s view, was that America’s nuclear arsenal was too big.” When Obama decries “alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War,” he is actually claiming that “alliances such as NATO were illegitimate.” When Obama argues that unrest in the Middle East was “fed by colonialism…and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies,” or mentions America’s “tolerance and encouragement of tyranny,” the Cheneys scoff but do not rebut (the statements are true, after all). Democrats, who wear their patriotism less ostentatiously, simply don’t talk about such things.

There are a few real foreign policy differences between the two parties. Probably the largest is about the recent nuclear deal with Iran, which the Cheneys, predictably, are against. Like most critics, they hold the actual deal up against a mythical better deal, which the US could have gotten and could still obtain merely by showing strength. America should, they argue,

reject the agreement…and recognize that, contrary to President Obama’s claims, there is a better deal possible. We know that sanctions and the credible threat of force have worked effectively in the past to affect Iran’s behavior. The sanctions regime… was working.

The sanctions regime was working, but the Cheneys neglect to mention that it was only working because the rest of the world had been persuaded to go along, and had made clear to Washington that if a reasonable deal was not reached because of maximalist American demands (the Bush/Cheney approach, which bore no fruit for 8 years), they would not try again. Enough Democrats voted with the President to sustain a veto of Republican legislation that would have killed the deal. Again, that is a real difference. But even that distinction exists mainly because Obama’s honest pursuit of negotiations forced a partisan split over an issue (being “tough” on Iran) the two parties were formerly happy to agree upon. Had he pursued a more hawkish course, the Democrats would have fallen in line.

The differences between Cheney and Obama recede again when we come to mass surveillance. The Cheneys criticize the President at length for not going far enough and for letting some programs lapse. They are adamant that these programs are essential for national security and legal under the Fourth Amendment. They include torture (or “enhanced interrogation” in Cheney-ese) among supposedly crucial and legal methods of intelligence-gathering. Obama banned torture, but for the rest of it he has only minor quibbles. In 2013, he said:

I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.

The Cheneys reserve their strongest criticism for Obama’s “appeasement” of America’s adversaries. They rightly note that Obama’s response to ISIS has been half-hearted, particularly his efforts to train and equip “moderate” rebels. The failure of those training programs was foreseeable to many, including the President and many of his advisers. In light of his waffling on the issue, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the handful of rebels America sent back into Syria were marched to their deaths for the sake of politics. The Cheneys are completely dismissive of politics: they want the United States to reengage in the Middle East (when did it withdraw?) and intervene decisively in Iraq and Syria.

The Cheneys are right about the weakness of Obama’s response, but that only proves the broken clock dictum. If arming rebels was obviously foolish, then wading further into the chaos in the Middle East would be monumentally stupid. The United States has done precisely that (just recently, in fact), but somehow another intervention is supposed to solve the problems which the first one created. The Cheneys place the blame for Iraq and Syria’s condition squarely on Obama’s withdrawal, clinging to the myth that the 2007 “surge” made Iraq relatively safe and stable, and justifying the 2003 invasion on the grounds that, “Saddam had deep, long-standing, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates.” None of these things are true. The Sunni revolt against the insurgency was the decisive factor in Iraq, and Saddam’s only significant relationship with terrorists was in Palestine, where the terrorists have only local ambitions.

The appeasement charge is applied just as carelessly to Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea has left many conservative commentators angry but at the same time deeply impressed at Putin’s display of “strength” (which says more than a little about what they really value). The Cheneys don’t seem to admire him but on the subject of Putin they are characteristically incoherent:

With bullying, extortion, blackmail, covert operations, the threat of nuclear strikes, and outright military invasion, Putin is desperately trying to reestablish Russia as a global power and reimpose Russian dominance over large swaths of Europe. The sovereignty of his neighbors is of little concern to him.

And yet, instead of seeing Putin’s splenetic interventions for what they are – short-sighted, uncoordinated outbursts commensurate with the ‘desperation’ he is accused of having – the Cheneys, like most on the right and many on the left, see a chess master running circles around a President afraid to commit his pieces. Where the Cheneys and their fellow-travelers differ most strongly from the left, on Russia and everything else, is motive. They claim that Obama is not only foolish but traitorous : “President Obama’s approach to Russia began where his approach to Iran did—with the assumption that America was to blame for the tensions in the relationship.” And again, there’s the irony: Putin is making the same mistake America made during the Bush years, but rather than let Russia overextend itself, the Cheneys want to double down on stupidity—they want to do the same thing all over again. Recall that Hillary Clinton, along with many establishment Democrats, favors a tougher approach to Russia, just as she favors a tougher approach everywhere else. So the question must be asked: rhetoric aside, on the subject of actual policy, what’s the difference?

cabinetAnd what we find when we range back through the years after the Second World War is near-total agreement on the basic premise of American foreign policy, thinly disguised by the occasional rhetorical dispute. The necessity and virtue of American leadership are unquestioned; the drive toward intervention this view spurs, and the wasteful disregard for life it encourages, are left unexamined. You’ll find no abrupt change when Presidents of different parties succeed each other. If anything, they do their best to out-tough their predecessor, as Kennedy did to Eisenhower, as Reagan did to Carter (whose foreign policy was more aggressive than most remember), and they are in any case hamstrung by the political danger of opposing the military’s aggressive suggestions. America has had twelve presidents since 1945; there isn’t a non-interventionist among them. Barack Obama has bombed at least a half dozen countries since he took office and somehow we’re supposed to believe he’s the first.

Then what accounts for the vitriol from the Dick Cheneys of the world? Why does he clearly hate Barack Obama so passionately, when as far as the rest of the world is concerned they differ only in their interpretation of the ideal of America’s necessity? A large part of the answer must be that consensus in Washington is so uniform that even Obama’s relatively minor deviations – the Iran Agreement, pressuring Israel to stop settlements, offering a few mild apologies for supporting mass-murdering dictators – are met with fierce opposition. To admit even one mistake, to change course ever so slightly, calls the entire narrative of American history into question, because that story has been so thoroughly sanitized that it can’t admit a correction. But Cheney shouldn’t worry: the next President, no matter who he or she is, will remain committed to American “values” and “leadership” abroad.

Exceptional opens with nearly a hundred pages of lazily potted history, designed to illustrate the resplendence and virtue of American conduct in the world since World War II, which has been “essential to the preservation and progress of freedom.” The view from Vietnam or Latin America is very different, but anyway, the Cheneys think:

We must ensure that our children know the truth about who we are, what we’ve done, and why it is uniquely America’s duty to be freedom’s defender… Our Children need to know that they are citizens of the most powerful, good, and honorable nation in the history of making, the exceptional nation.

Hillary Clinton believes the world isn’t hearing enough of the good stuff, either. As she said last year:

We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world. That’s what we should be standing for.

Exceptional is short on uplift, but there are occasional hints of optimism. “There is good news,” the authors say. “Just as one president has left a path of destruction in his wake, one president can rescue us.” Perhaps Dick Cheney should vote for Hillary Clinton.

Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.