Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cheney's Torture Crusade

It's 1976 and 1992 all over again. Having served in the Gerald Ford administration as it was winding down and the administration of the current president’s father as it lost its footing, Vice-President Dick Cheney knows what it’s like to be part of a failing political enterprise. Even though Cheney has been more powerful than the president he serves, his effort to remake American government is crumbling at his feet. When Cheney assumed the vice-presidency, he made a determined effort to neutralize many of the checks and balances in American politics, centralize power in the White House and Pentagon, and wage an aggressive policy of overthrowing antagonistic regimes like Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. In doing so, he made his office the driving force in the Bush administration and turned the president into the inspirational public spokesperson for Cheney’s initiatives.

At first, Vice-President Cheney enjoyed a lot of success against Bush administration rivals like Colin Powell and Christine Todd Whitman. Cheney over-ruled Whitman on carbon dioxide emissions and the much more formidable Powell on North Korea, Iraq intelligence, and torture. However, the many foreign policy failures of “the Cheney doctrine” have gradually shaken Cheney’s choke hold on the policy apparatus. Apart from Saddam Hussein’s government, all of the antagonistic governments are stronger now than they were five years ago. Although the Iraq invasion is failing by almost any measure, it is especially failing to bring about the Bush administration’s goal of a democratic transformation of the Arab Middle East. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an Arab country that is not now a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and thus a real threat to American security. As a result of the crucial foreign policy failures, Cheney is now the subject of ridicule for the false claims he made about Iraqi WMD and connections with al-Qaeda. Likewise, he’s losing much of his clout in American government. Not only is his former chief of staff Scooter Libby under indictment for outing a CIA operative, but many of Cheney’s most effective allies in the bureaucracy were either forced to resign (Wolfowitz and Feith) or transferred out of the policy loop (Bolton). As a result, Cheney’s office does not have the clout it used to have in the State Department or Pentagon.

The unpopularity of the war also guarantees that Cheney won’t have a legacy beyond 2008. One of the first things that a winner between John McCain and Hillary Clinton will do is clean Cheney’s supporters out of the national security apparatus and wipe out the memory of Cheney’s initiatives. Condoleeza Rice, the current choice of fantasy conservatives and increasingly public persona herself, would do the same.

Vice-President Cheney’s current crusade for the right of American forces to torture captured suspects is a strong indication of the extent to which he has been forced on the defensive. Not only has the Senate passed Sen. John McCain’s legislation to ban the use of torture, but the State Department and military lawyers in the Pentagon are drawing up their own guidelines for re-affirming Geneva standards for handling prisoners. Cheney and his supporters are using all of the tricks of the bureaucratic trade to resist these initiatives. Cheney himself has been meeting with the Republican caucus in the Senate while his staff has been threatening vetoes of major defense legislation, holding meetings without informing bureaucratic opponents like Secretary of State Rice, and holding up final approval for new policy guidelines. Cheney has become a one-man filibuster for torture, but the significant point is that he is playing bureaucratic defense now and it’s only a matter of time before Cheney’s enemies break through his defenses and get his torture policies reversed.

Given Vice-President Cheney’s influence on President Bush, he won’t become just “another guy” in the Bush administration. However, it’s becoming evident that Dick Cheney is no longer a driving force in American government.


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