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Cheney: ‘The More Ruthless the Better’

The World According to Dick Cheney

a film directed by R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton
If you want to be loved, you know, go be a movie star.
—Dick Cheney, in The World According to Dick Cheney

1.

I came upon the half-destroyed truck atop a highway overpass outside Fallujah, the cab all shot to hell, the trailer bloodstained and askew, propped at a crazy angle on its blown tires. On the highway below a great black burn scarred the concrete and over it a rust-red slash, the soot and blood marking the spot where, earlier that day in October 2003, the insurgents had used a cheap remote control to ignite barrels of concealed explosives just as the US armored patrol rumbled by, killing one paratrooper, wounding several. Insurgents, hidden in houses nearby, followed with bursts from their AK-47s.

Dick Cheney; drawing by James Ferguson

The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M-16s and M-14s began “hosing” everything they could see, starting with the truck passing on the highway above—eviscerating the unfortunate driver—and then poured fire into the houses.

How many Iraqis had they killed and wounded? The more the better, as far as insurgent leaders were concerned. “The point,” the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne told me the next day, “is to get the Americans to fire back and hopefully they’ll get some Iraqi casualties out of that and they can publicize that.” By week’s end family and close friends of those killed and wounded would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.

American firepower plus Iraqi deaths equals more insurgents: an axiom in the strategy of provocation. Provoke your enemy to kill civilians and thereby call to battle the sleeping population. You have no army? Use the occupier’s to help raise one of your own. In Iraq insurgents used that strategy to grow and prosper, recognizing the characteristic American quickness to react with overwhelming firepower as their best friend. Across continents, al-Qaeda used it as well. Blow up towers in New York, creating an indelible recruiting poster for the worldwide cause while provoking self-defeating responses. Lure the Americans into Afghanistan, where they’ll sink into the quagmire that trapped their superpower rival twenty years before.

Such was Osama bin Laden’s strategy. Who dreamed that the Americans would prove so cooperative by also invading Iraq? Like a celestial slot machine daily pouring forth its golden bounty, the September 11 attacks had produced a wonderfully telegenic invasion of a major Muslim country. To an attack by a small group that called for a worldwide uprising of Muslims to throw off American oppression, the United States had responded by sending 150,000 armed Americans to oppress a Muslim country. The tiny fringe movement could point to the television screens as American tanks rumbled down the streets of an Arab capital, as American soldiers rousted Muslims from their beds, threw them to the ground, placed unclean boots on their backs—as they stripped them and tortured them at Abu Ghraib, as they had hooded them and forced them to their knees at Guantánamo.

If the Iraq insurgency sat atop the worldwide jihadist insurgency like the second layer of a cake, it was the Americans who made that possible. Guantánamo did for al-Qaeda what Abu Ghraib had for the Iraqi insurgents, affirming in powerful images their political arguments about who Americans were, what they did to Muslims, and why they must be defeated.

2.

“But it’s not Guantánamo that does the harm,” Dick Cheney writes in his memoirs.1 “It is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it.”

Even if, for the sake of debate, one were to accept the image argument, I don’t have much sympathy for the view that we should find an alternative to Guantánamo…simply because we are worried about how we are perceived abroad.

If it was true, as Barack Obama said, that Guantánamo was “probably the number one recruitment tool” of al-Qaeda, Cheney wrote,

one would expect to see al Qaeda mention Guantánamo frequently, but a review of thirty-four messages and interviews by top al Qaeda leaders issued in 2009 and 2010 shows the word Guantánamo appearing in only three.

Instead, this “recruitment tool theory,” Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in the spring of 2009,

after a familiar fashion,…excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the Left, “We brought it on ourselves..”2

Dick Cheney is a highly experienced public official, but what strikes one about these comments is how shallow, provincial, and uninformed they seem, and also how tendentious, mistaking a discussion about facts—for the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency are facts—for a dispute about politics. That images of repression and torture were enormously important as a means to stoke Muslim anger and recruit insurgents was a commonplace for any soldier who fought in Iraq—or indeed anyone who noticed the graffiti and improvised murals on the walls. “Top al-Qaeda leaders” had no need to talk about Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib in interviews; the images were everywhere.

In Baghdad in the fall of 2003, six months before the photographs of them were broadcast, the tortures at Abu Ghraib already formed part of a generalized rage among Iraqis over their treatment at the hands of Americans. Indeed, a grim joke I heard often in Baghdad at the time melded the anger over the Americans’ failure to restore power with rumors of what they were doing to helpless prisoners in Saddam’s former torture chambers:

I knew the Americans would finally get the electricity back on but I didn’t know that when they did they’d be shooting it up my ass….

Like any insurgency, the “war on terror” was in its essence a political struggle in which occupier and insurgent fought over the allegiance of the population. In 2004, long after the Iraq war had descended into fiasco, this larger dynamic was captured by Cheney’s one-time mentor, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in a single question: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

This was about the time that Cheney was boasting that the insurgency was “in its last throes.” His comments on the dynamics of the war were blinkered, ignorant, ideological: that American repression and atrocity help fuel insurgency he believes an echo of “that same old refrain from the Left” about crime. The comparison is striking and peculiar and it serves as a window into a worldview that, generally concealed beneath a crisp technocratic mastery born of deep experience in government, is dogmatic and deeply reactionary. In answer to the vice-president’s complaint, in the bunker beneath the White House on September 11, that “the comms in this place are terrible,” counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, as he tells us in his memoir, Against All Enemies, bemoaned the fact that the funds he’d requested to renovate the bunker’s communications had never been approved:

“It’ll happen,” Cheney promised. “Are you getting everything you need, everybody doing what you want?” Cheney asked, placing his hand on my shoulder. I had known Dick Cheney for a dozen years and for that long had been fascinated at how complex a person he was. On the surface, he was quiet and soft-spoken. Below the surface calm ran strong, almost extreme beliefs.

Only rarely did these beliefs become visible—for example, during the 1980s, when, as Clarke notes, Cheney “had been one of the five most radical conservatives in the Congress.” But mostly, as a powerful official within the executive branch—as White House chief of staff when he was in his thirties, secretary of defense when he was in his forties, and now, in his sixties, as a vice-president whose power and influence were unmatched in the history of the country—Cheney kept his own counsel. “The quiet,” as Clarke delicately observes, “often hid views that would seem out of place if aired more broadly.”3 Views, he might have added, that would surely have attracted opposition. Mostly Cheney chose to air those opinions in private, to the one man who could give them life: George W. Bush. In those weekly lunches and daily private conferences, the words could be passionate, even taunting: “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Cheney demanded of Bush about Saddam Hussein.4

Self-directed, restrained, disciplined, Cheney was concerned not with words but with power and what it brought. In the aftermath of September 11, the silent vice-president, serving a fledgling president who had won half a million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, who knew little of the workings of government and less of the world, and who had just failed to prevent the most damaging attack on the homeland in the history of the United States, had an unprecedented opportunity to embody, in matters of interrogation, detention, counterterror, and war, his “extreme beliefs” in the policies of the country. That those beliefs originated in a mind that seems not to have grasped, or credited, the basic dynamics of the war itself was a particular misfortune that still weighs on American foreign policy.

3.

Late in the afternoon of September 11, Dick and Lynne Cheney and a few aides, as he tells filmmaker R.J. Cutler, emerged from the bunker, “went out and got on a helicopter on the south lawn on the White House and flew off to a secure undisclosed location.” The flight path took them across the Potomac:

Everything I’d seen up till that point had been, you know, over television and so forth. But when you fly over the Pentagon and there’s a big hole in the side of it and all the signs of the attack and it’s still smoking from the damage that was done that morning was a dramatic sort of reinforcement of what we knew was happening. I started thinking about how we should respond, how can we bring to bear the power and influence of the United States to take down whoever had launched this attack against us.

It is indeed a problem: How does one “bring to bear the power and influence of the United States”—the greatest military power in the history of the world and now, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the great unrivaled champion of “the unipolar moment” in international affairs5—on a tiny group of a few hundred conspirators hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and scattered across various other hard-to-find places in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? The United States, the muscle-bound giant, with technology generations more advanced than any in the world—what nation could produce fighter planes that could survive a dogfight with those of the United States, or aircraft carriers that could remain afloat in the seas?—had been presented with its gravest military challenge by…a small, lightly armed network of insurgents.

  1. 1

    See the earlier articles in this series, including “ In the Darkness of Dick Cheney,” The New York Review, March 6, 2014, and “ He Remade Our World,” The New York Review, April 3, 2014. 

  2. 2

    “Remarks by Richard B. Cheney,” the American Enterprise Institute, May 21, 2009. 

  3. 3

    See Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press, 2004), p. 19. 

  4. 4

    See George W. Bush, Decision Points (Broadway, 2010), p. 251. 

  5. 5

    See, for example, Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1 (1990/1991). 

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