Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the Middle: Vice President Cheney

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: Vice President Cheney

There are so many topics to talk about in politics at the moment – the war in Iraq, a myriad of political scandals, Supreme Court nominee Alito, just to name three – but one question keeps coming up for me again and again:

What's up with Vice President Cheney?

For all extents and purposes, Cheney is the head of a once powerful force in Republican circles known as the neoconservatives (or neocons), or those who wish to use American military power to transform the world into a place that is both safer and more secure for the United States. The war in Iraq, of course, was the first big test of this worldview and strategy. 9/11 provided the impetus for the neocons to really take the helm at the White House, driven by Cheney's close proximity to President Bush's ear and a Karl Rove-led PR machine that drove home the message that went something like the following:

Terrorists = bad.
Saddam Hussein = bad.
We must fight terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here.


Saddam's gotta go.

Cut to 2005 and we're still in Iraq and American soldiers are giving up their lives to increasingly sophisticated insurgent attacks. Recent developments have also brought us back to the run-up to the war, particularly the PR machine that was run out of the Vice President's office. Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, is under indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice in the matter of revealing CIA operative Valery Plame's identity in an effort to destroy the reputation of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who, lo and behold, tried to put the brakes on the Let's Go War! dance by refuting claims that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase from Niger materials that could be used in the construction of nuclear weapons. (Full disclosure: the British claim that Hussein actually did try to purchase these materials, so who knows what the truth is?)

So, Cheney is at the center of a war policy that, by the best of estimates, is not going very well, and is perilously close to a political scandal that is toxic to an already floundering administration. So what does he do? Go to Disney Land?

Nope, he's a sole voice in the wilderness in support of torturing detainees.

Just last week, Cheney showed up at a Republican senatorial luncheon to lobby lawmakers for a CIA exemption to an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The exemption would cover the CIA's covert "black sites" in several Eastern European democracies and other countries where key al Qaeda captives are being kept.

So I ask you, Phillip, old buddy:

What's up with Vice President Cheney?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

You don't make it easy to find middle ground when you start with bogeyman stories! It is a given, and goes without saying, that neocons rule the Bush administration, if you don't like the war in Iraq. I'm sure that Republican spin-meisters are wishing they had thought of a cute label to use to identify those in President Clinton's administration who were pushing for a particular agenda. Labeling people makes them much easier to demonize!

In fact, I think I've laid out a reasonable case for the invasion of Iraq even in the absence of WMDs, and there are plenty of people who don't fit the "neocon" mold that agreed with invading Iraq based on what we knew at the time, including Senator Clinton from New York and the majority of both houses of Congress. Rather than affixing labels, let us instead agree that Vice President Cheney was one of several people who believed it was important to press matters militarily in the Middle East, and not based entirely on over-simplistic jingoism.

On that basis, I believe the idea is that as the war effort is currently unpopular, and with "Scooter" Libby under indictment, anybody holding the view that the United States of America should attempt to exert positive influence in the Middle East should be laying low, or hiding in shame. Is that about right? I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that since I generally expected things in Iraq to be worse than they've been so far, I don't generally see much reason for laying low or giving up at this point.

That said, Libby's indictment does reflect directly on Cheney personally, not just in a policy sense. While the indictments don't technically mean that anyone in the White House deliberately did anything wrong prior to the beginning of the investigation, and might even suggest that the prosecutor tried and failed to convince a grand jury to bring further charges, we all certainly have suspicions. As much as I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, my suspicions lead me to be very disappointed in President Bush, as I mentioned that I would be.

This is politics, though, and there are two ways to deal with setbacks. Either hide in shame, as Newt Gingrich did, or charge right in, as Bill Clinton did. Dick Cheney appears to be taking the latter route. Put another way: Cheney is old enough to be looking at retirement in a few years, with perhaps the occasional speaking engagement. In one sense, he's got nothing to lose!

Still, it might be a slight misrepresentation to say that Cheney is supporting torture. Rather, he doesn't want to support an amendment that he considers too broad. His opposition could, if one were so inclined, be seen as a further demonstration of the basic honesty and integrity of this administration. After all, they could support the legislation and carry on with the torture anyway!

But with Libby reporting to federal authorities, I don't think I'm actually willing to claim that's the case here.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Where's the boogeyman story in the case that I presented, Philip? It's a widely held view that the neocons, led in many senses by Dick Cheney because of his position as Vice President and influence on President Bush, led the charge for taking out Saddam – before September 11, 2001. Cheney is widely seen as the most influential Vice President in U.S. history. There were others who likely supported the war in Iraq for any number of reasons, but it was the neocons who gave the push (and some might say rush) to the pro-war movement, and finally President Bush who picked up its banner. So it wasn't just Cheney: it was Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and Feith and card-carrying members of the neocon intelligentsia like Bill Kristol from The Weekly Standard.

Is there something untrue in the way I've presented things? If so, I can't see it. I'm not trying to imply that there was a "sinister cabal" (a term that sounds strangely familiar to me for some reason) of low men in secret smoky rooms plotting this thing, but merely that Cheney successfully led a movement of politicians, intellectuals, and journalists to their desired goal: the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not this goal was accomplished on shaky evidence and under less than up-and-up circumstances is a much murkier question in my view. The Fitzgerald investigation is ongoing, however, and the Senate – under prompting from newly feisty Minority Leader Harry Reid – is looking into pre-war intelligence. Both will hopefully provide some answers to the many open questions about how and why we ended up where we are today.

You may well be right about Cheney feeling he has "nothing less to lose" (do I see common ground on the horizon, shining like a bright beacon of freedom?). With his office under siege and his chief aide (Libby was known as "Cheney's Cheney") gone, Cheney is now finally feeling the cold shoulder of the president, according to some observers.

Therefore, he may feel "freed up" to let fly his exact positions on policy and the world. Let's remember that it was Cheney who has always taken the hardest line on Iraq, on the war on terror, and on most matters of national security. Therefore, he likely feels that some harsh level of interrogation (he might quibble on the use of the word "torture") is vital to successfully prosecute the war on terror.

The fact remains, however, that many in his own party are dead against him on this one. Would you really want to be the one to tell Senator John McCain – someone who knows about interrogation and torture like no other living American – that he's wrong on this policy?

Where I come from, that's called chutzpah.

And what's interesting from a political standpoint is that Cheney and the neocons may find themselves more and more outside of the mainstream – to use phraseology from the Supreme Court nomination hearings – even within the Republican party.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

The bogeyman is a widely-held belief, too!

It's the label of "neocons" — accepted glibly by roughly half of my friends and a source of puzzlement to the other half — that sounds like a scary bedtime story. It's hard to label a group without turning them into a de facto sinister cabal, and I like to think we're the only sinister cabal operating around these parts!

I really do have friends from both sides of most political issues, which puts me (I think) in a distinct minority in this country, and makes me somewhat sensitive to the issue of vocabulary that isn't shared.

Despite a quibble over labels, I do think we see the same thing driving Dick Cheney. If he cared what people thought about him before — and I'm not sure he ever did — he certainly cares little now. We may be in the rare position of having a Vice President of the United States of America speaking as freely as a weekend pundit.

My, that would be interesting!

A related issue that I haven't addressed yet is torture. I actually disagree with Vice President Cheney, though I know many people here in Texas that would back him up on his terms.

I see two negatives to allowing "aggressive interrogation techniques," which is the euphemism with which I'll start.

The first is that when it is known that we are using such techniques, we invite retaliatory measures against our own personnel. Since the publicity over Abu Ghraib, it is well-known that we've crossed the line, and I think we need to be beyond circumspect in making it clear that we regret that and that it won't happen again, in hopes that our own people are treated well. Of course, there are counter-arguments: We are dealing with an enemy that beheads journalists for being Jewish and tends to see conspiracy in every shadow, so it isn't likely that our pleas for restraint would be believed or reciprocated. They simply don't capture many of us. Also, Cheney could be deliberately sending a message to our enemies, stating that we won't back down or give an inch just because of bad publicity.

I do think that the Bush administration has tended to make statements knowing that they would be heard by our enemies, while critics of the administration too easily forget that.

Still, the second reason I don't think we should be using torture is that it simply doesn't work. Everything I've read on the subject indicates that we are far more likely to be given false information by someone wanting to make the pain stop than real information we can use to save lives.

Reporting indicates that those we capture have had some training in how to deal with us. They complain based on certain patterns, know what our most likely approach with them will be, and so on. Up against an enemy that knows how to play to the worldwide press, I think we would be best off installing video surveillance to prove to observers that our prisoners are not being tortured, and making our pledge of no-torture known to the world.

Will they believe us? Maybe not. But we don't make every decision solely for our enemies.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

You make it sound like the term neocon is an epithet, when in fact it's a label that was worn proudly by many. It's only very recently that they've fallen into hard times, as we grind through month after month of casualties and bombings in Iraq.

Here's a pretty neat wrap-up of our neocon discussion, which in many ways proves us both right (In the Middle pats on back all around, I say!), from Wikipedia:
Neoconservative journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and politicians, often dubbed "neocons" by supporters and critics alike, have been credited with (or blamed for) their influence on U.S. foreign policy, especially under the administrations of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George W. Bush (2001-present), and are particularly noted for their association with and support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The term "neocon," while increasingly popular in recent years, is somewhat controversial and is rejected by many to whom the label is applied. Others say it lacks any coherent definition, especially since many so-called neoconservatives vehemently disagree with one another on major issues.

On the aggressively beating the hell out of people for information thing, I think you've hit on why John McCain has so much stature on this issue: he knows that the United States loses its credibility on a host of issues when it acts no better than backwater dictatorships in treating its captives.

You've presented this issue, in part, in terms of how our "enemy" treats people. If we're talking about al Quaeda, I think it's pretty well established that they care very little for human life: their own, ours in America, or anyone in between who gets in the way of their goals. In the larger sense, the United States should (and many ways absolutely must) set the gold standard for the rest of the planet. For example, how can we go to China and demand human rights reforms when it's well known that our own practices are suspect?

Former Irish President Mary Robinson, a world leader on human rights, recently made an eloquent and urgent point on Real Time With Bill Maher in stating that the U.S. used to be a beacon to the world on human rights issues, but that simply isn't the case any longer.

If true – and I very much believe this has become the case over the last five years – that's a sad legacy for the Bush administration, and indicates an enormous loss of the United States' moral power and leadership. Cheney's position on "aggressive interrogation" or torture or whatever you want to call it is only the icing on that particularly sour cake.

So, I suppose that's a summary of what I think is up with our Vice President. But I'll leave you with the last word!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

You and I clearly disagree on many fundamental issues here, but I think that we have found some common ground.

When I refer to "our enemies," I simply mean those who oppose us on the battlefield. Right now that includes Al Queda, some Sunni Iraqis, and many other foreign nationals who have come across the borders into Iraq and Afghanistan. It could someday include anyone. One big question seems to be how we should deal with those who, as you say, care very little for human life. On this, I fear, some have been very short-sighted, willing to trade immediate results for future problems around the world. Despite the fact that it will certainly cost us something in the near-term, I believe we should ban torture or anything like torture and make it very clear that we have done so. For the safety of our troops, for the consciences of those who are ordered to interrogate captured combatants, and for the future.

Vice President Cheney is a symbol to many people, and not a positive one. "Neocon" is far from the worst thing he has been called recently! Still, while nothing is yet known about his involvement with CIA leak case, he has clearly abandoned any pretense of taking a moral high road in politics.

I listened to a radio interview with Mike Wallace today, and when asked about Dan Rather, he recounted a conversation they recently had. At that time, Wallace asked Rather whether Rather ever thought of stating something like, "If they go, I go," when people were being fired over the CBS News memo forgeries. And that, I realized, is what I would expect from Dick Cheney as well. The idea that he isn't going to sit back and watch his former chief of staff take the fall, but is either going to defend him if innocent, or resign along with him if not.

Still, this is wartime. You and I are both young, so this is the first major war we've seen. On top of that, it's the most detailed war coverage ever provided. I think that it is quite easy to lose perspective and to think our country may never recover, though of course we've bounced back from worse. Is Dick Cheney a bigger shame to this nation than all previous presidents and vice presidents? I hardly think so. One thing we've learned as a result of going to war is that in many parts of the world and for a very long time, the general opinion of the United States has been more negative than most people realized.

I believe that the Bush legacy, and the legacy of Dick Cheney, will stand or fall on one thing: whether or not we win this war. I also believe that we will win this war, if we do not falter. Only time will tell.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is the co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is the Executive Producer of

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