Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Dark Lord

The talented Joan Didion gives us a good biographical sketch of the Dark Lord: Cheney: The Fatal Touch New York Review of Books 09/07/06; 10/05/06 issue.

She draws on both recent and older sources for her description of Cheney, including Theodore Draper's excellent 1991 history, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs.

"Dark Lord" is actually a fitting label for Cheney. As Didion writes, he "leaves no paper trail" - or at least tries to minimize it. He is obsessed with secrecy. "His every instinct is to withhold information, hide, let surrogates speak for him, as he did after the quail-shooting accident on the Armstrong ranch."

Cheney no doubt has conservative-to-reactionary goals in terms of policies. But strenthening the Executive for a Republican President to be able to use it almost as an elective-dictator office seems to his core mission in public life. Didion writes:

The Vice President is frequently described as "ideological," or "strongly conservative," but little in his history suggests the intellectual commitment implicit in either. He made common cause through the run-up to Iraq with the neoconservative ideologues who had burrowed into think tanks during the Clinton years and resurfaced in 2001 in the departments of State and Defense and the White House itself, but the alliance appeared even then to be more strategic than felt. The fact that Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams shared with Cheney a wish to go to war in Iraq could create, in its confluence with September 11, what many came to call a perfect storm - as if it had blown up out of the blue beyond reach of human intervention - but the perfect storm did not make Cheney a neocon.
I think this is accurate, and it's an important point in understanding the dynamics of the foreign-policy process of the Cheney-Bush administration.

Cheney has been a leading sponsor of the neocons. But it's unlikely in the extreme that he shares their professed Troskyist/Napoleonic faith in spreading democracy through wars of liberation. Cheney is a militarist and nationalist. The confluence of malign intentions and interests that produced the Iraq War was "a perfect storm" that both neocons and Cheney-Rummy style nationalists exploited. Didion continues:

He identifies himself as a conservative, both political and cultural. He presents himself as can-do, rock-solid even if he is forced to live in Washington (you know he only does it on our behalf), one politician who can be trusted not to stray far from whatever unexamined views were current in the intermountain West during the 1950s and 1960s. He has described a 1969 return visit to the University of Wisconsin, during which he took Bill Steiger and George H.W. Bush to an SDS rally, as having triggered his disgust with the Vietnam protest movement. "We were the only guys in the hall wearing suits that night," he told Nicholas Lemann. As a congressman he cast votes that reflected the interests of an energy-driven state that has voted Republican in every presidential election but one since 1952. His votes in the House during 1988, the last year he served there, gave him an American Conservative Union rating of 100.
Still, she notes that there are notable instances in his career in which a pragmatic streak having more to do with ambition than ideology came to the fore, such as his successful efforts in 1976, along with his then-patron Don Rumsfeld, to push Nelson Rockefeller off the Republican ticket. He and Rummy also pushed to reduce Henry Kissinger's power as the foreign policy heavyweight in the Ford administration.

Didion may be correct in seeing those moves motivated more by ambition or pragmatic political calculation than by ideology. But it's also worth remembering that both Rockefeller and Kissinger were bogeymen to the Reagan wing of the Republican Party at that time.

He's also willing to bend his principles, such as they are, to make a few bucks for Halliburton, of course:

"I think it is a false dichotomy to be told that we have to choose between 'commercial' interests and other interests that the United States might have in a particular country or region around the world," he said at the Cato Institute in 1998, during the period he was CEO of Halliburton, after he had pursued one war against Iraq and before he would pursue the second. He was arguing against the imposition by the United States of unilateral economic sanctions on such countries as Libya and Iran, two countries, although he did not mention this, in which Halliburton subsidiaries had been doing business. Nor did he mention, when he said in the same speech that he thought multilateral sanctions "appropriate" in the case of Iraq, that Iraq was a third country in which a Halliburton subsidiary would by the year's end be doing business.
And the following seems an accurate enough description, though it's pretty general:

The notion that he takes a consistent view of America's role in the world nonetheless remains general. The model on which he has preferred to operate is the cold war, or, to use the words in which he and the President have repeatedly described the central enterprise of their own administration, the "different kind of war," the war in which "our goal will not be achieved overnight."

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