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In the Darkness of Dick Cheney
Posted on Feb 13, 2014
By Mark Danner, NYRB and TomDispatch
[This essay appears in the March 6 issue of The New York Review of Books and was posted at TomDispatch.com with the permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.]
If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
1. “We Ought to Take It Out”
In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. “They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley,” he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.
“There’s no population around it anyplace… You can’t say it’s to generate electricity, there’s no power line coming out of it. It’s just out there obviously for production of plutonium.”
The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant—with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: “Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out.”
Launching an immediate surprise attack on Syria, Cheney tells us in his memoirs, would not only “make the region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with respect to nonproliferation.” This was the heart of the Bush Doctrine: henceforth terrorists and the states harboring them would be treated as one and, as President Bush vowed before Congress in January 2002, “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” It was according to this strategic thinking that the United States answered attacks on New York and Washington by a handful of terrorists not by a carefully circumscribed counterinsurgency aimed at al-Qaeda but by a worldwide “war on terror” that also targeted states—Iraq, Iran, North Korea—that formed part of a newly defined “axis of evil.”1 According to those attending National Security Council meetings in the days after September 11,
“The primary impetus for invading Iraq… was to make an example of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.”2
And yet five years after the president had denounced the “axis of evil” before Congress, and four years after his administration had invaded and occupied Iraq in the declared aim of ridding Saddam’s regime of its weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans had detonated their own nuclear weapon and the Syrians and Iranians, as the vice president tells us in his memoirs, were “both working to develop nuclear capability.” What’s more,
“Syria was facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, where they killed US soldiers. Iran was providing funding and weapons for exactly the same purpose, as well as providing weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were both involved in supporting Hezbollah in its efforts to threaten Israel and destabilize the Lebanese government. They constituted a major threat to America’s interests in the Middle East.”
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”I told the president we needed a more effective and aggressive strategy to counter these threats, and I believed that an important first step would be to destroy the reactor in the Syrian desert.”
Launching an air strike on Syria, as he tells Cutler, “would sort of again reassert the kind of authority and influence we had back in ’03—when we took down Saddam Hussein and eliminated Iraq as a potential source of WMD.”
“Back in ’03” had been the Golden Age, when American power had reached its zenith. After Kabul had fallen in a few weeks, the shock and awe launched from American planes and missiles had brought American warriors storming all the way to Baghdad. Saddam’s statue, with the help of an American tank and a strong chain, crashed to the pavement. The first of the “axis of evil” countries had fallen. President Bush donned his flight suit and swaggered across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. It was the “Mission Accomplished” moment.
And yet is there not something distinctly odd in pointing, in 2007—not to mention in the memoirs of 2011 and the film interview in 2013—to “the kind of authority and influence we had back in ’03”? Four years after the Americans had declared victory in Iraq—even as the vice president was “strongly recommending” that the United States attack Syria—more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and nearly five thousand Americans were dead, Iraq was near anarchy, and no end was yet in sight. Not only the war’s ending but its beginning had disappeared into a dark cloud of confusion and controversy, as the weapons of mass destruction that were its justification turned out not to exist. The invasion had produced not the rapid and overwhelming victory Cheney had anticipated but a quagmire in which the American military had occupied and repressed a Muslim country and, four years later, been brought to the verge of defeat. As for “authority and influence,” during that time North Korea had acquired nuclear weapons and Iran and Syria had started down the road to building them.
Given this, what exactly had the “demonstration model” demonstrated? If such demonstrations really did “guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity…to flout the authority of the United States,” how exactly had the decision to invade Iraq and the disastrous outcome of the war guided the actions and policies of those authority-flouting countries? The least one could say is that if the theory worked, then that “authority and influence we had back in ’03,” in conquered Baghdad, had been unmasked, as the insurgency got underway, as an illusion.
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