Lightning Rod

As Dick Cheney's punch-throwing memoir hits store shelves, Foreign Policy hosts a freewheeling debate on the legacy of America's most controversial vice president.

The publication this week of Dick Cheney's fiery memoir, In My Time, has a lot of tongues wagging, including those of many of his former colleagues in George W. Bush's administration. The former vice president's book has reopened festering wounds in Washington and sparked a ferocious debate over everything from the Iraq invasion to domestic surveillance to Condoleezza Rice's tears. If anyone expected the hard-nosed Cheney to have softened in his retirement, think again: The book is an unapologetic recapitulation of neoconservatism, power projection, American exceptionalism, and brass-knuckle politics -- in short, all of what made Cheney the most feared, hated, and influential vice president in recent history. Foreign Policy asked an all-star line up to debate his legacy.

James Traub: He was a maniac

Elliott Abrams: A man of principle

Kori Schake: Biting the hand that fed him

Dahlia Lithwick: A torturous rigidity

Tom Malinowski: His cruel and unusual legacy

Thomas E. Ricks: When Cheney was good

Jake Bernstein: First and foremost, a political warrior

Anne Weismann: No secret-sharer he

Robert Dallek: A memoir full of mysteries

He was a maniac
By James Traub

In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatric researcher who claims to know something about political leadership, argues that "mania" makes leaders "more creative and resilient." I wonder what he thinks of Dick Cheney.

I have always been inclined to think of Cheney as the Lucifer of George W. Bush's administration, manipulating the Boy President with his dark and sinister arts. On reflection, however, I think I have given the former vice president too much credit for cool rationality. Cheney believed things that rational people -- for example, the rational people in the U.S. State Department -- understood to be baseless. And he believed them with a fiery certainty. He was a maniac.

In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes Cheney's obsession with Saddam Hussein's alleged connections with al Qaeda. Woodward writes that Secretary of State Colin Powell "thought that Cheney had the fever. The vice-president and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz kept looking for the connection between Saddam and 9/11.... Nearly every conversation or reference came back to al Qaeda and trying to nail the connection with Iraq." Cheney would leap at every cryptic fragment of intelligence to vindicate his wild claims. Woodward -- being Woodward -- asked Bush whether he "sensed a fever in Cheney," and the president, being the president, said no. "Fever to me is this kind of delirious -- He's in control," Bush said.

But, of course, that's the paradox. Cheney was in control -- frighteningly so. He was in control on 9/11 when the president was not, and he was in control at all those National Security Council meetings where he kept his counsel, only to wait for a quiet moment to whisper his dark suspicions in the president's ear. Cheney was the silent custodian of dreadful secrets, like the diabolical lawyer Tulkinghorn in Bleak House. But they weren't secrets; they were nightmares. Cheney was a supremely rational man in the grip of mania.

Perhaps where we go wrong with Cheney is confusing secularism or temperance with intellectual and moral clarity. Cheney, unlike Bush, was an unillusioned man. He did not believe that American missiles could seed the barren soil of Iraq with liberal democracy (though he did believe that Iraqis would strew petals on arriving U.S. tanks). He does not appear to have believed that God was guiding his hand -- the kind of magical thinking that Bush taught us, by example, to fear. Cheney was not transfixed by such lights; and yet he was transfixed by something dark. Perhaps it was what journalist Ron Suskind called "the one percent doctrine": the belief that America could not afford to take even a 1 percent risk of attack. But that was Cheney's own formulation, rearranging the tangled sheets of his nighttime fevers into the semblance of a well-made bed.

"For abnormal challenges," Ghaemi writes, "abnormal leaders are needed." This would be a laughable sentiment had the abnormal leaders of just the other day not shown it to be grotesque. Abnormal challenges require men of cool judgment -- General Eisenhower, not General MacArthur. Spare us, please, your maniacs.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.

A man of principle
By Elliott Abrams

The early reviews of Dick Cheney's memoir have not evaluated the book, but instead have used its publication as an occasion for attacks on Cheney and his record, with general assaults on George W. Bush's administration thrown in for good measure. (Perhaps the best, i.e. worst, example of this is Robert Kaiser's strident "review" in the Washington Post.)

Cheney's memoir is not about 9/11, or solely about Bush's administration, but about his entire life and political career. I first knew Cheney when he was chairman of the Republican Policy Committee in the House of Representatives (from 1981 to 1987), and our discussions centered then on the wars in Central America. Neither controversy nor scandal shook his view that preventing communist takeovers in that region was an important goal for the United States. Later, when I served at Bush's National Security Council, I sometimes worked with Cheney, then vice president. Despite those who claim he changed over time, I did not find that so. The central qualities remained: total devotion to principle and to country, and complete and unswerving commitment to any policy he believed served American interests.

If that sounds predictable or normal in a vice president, think again. Many vice presidents are concerned above all about their own reputations and political futures. Some separate themselves from the president to curry favor with the press, their party, or even the opposing party. Many use leaks to protect their personal interests. Cheney did none of these things. When he differed from a policy he told the president so, privately, and told the press and those outside the White House nothing -- a practice that earned him unending attacks in the media from gossip-hungry journalists.

Cheney fervently believed that America was at war after 9/11, and this belief led him to the conclusion that America must fight and win. Such a conviction would have been commonplace after Pearl Harbor but was less so in the years after 2002 -- and especially as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became unpopular. Many politicians would have flinched, adjusted, tacked; in fact, many did. Cheney refused, and for this he suffered caricature as a warmonger, torturer, and fanatic. Or perhaps suffer is the wrong verb, for though the attacks came they usually made him grin, not grimace. He did not much care, for he thought far more was at stake than his approval ratings.

News stories about the memoir have noted above all his criticism of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over North Korea policy, and of Secretary of State Colin Powell over leaking to defend his own policy choices and his personal popularity. As to North Korea, Cheney and Rice had a deep disagreement, but the criticism is not personal; readers must judge who had the better of the policy argument then and who has it now. To me, Cheney appears to win hands down, but we must await the Rice memoir due in November to see what arguments she can muster. As to Powell, the criticism is more personal, for Cheney accuses him of criticizing the president and his policies to people outside the administration and of constant leaking.

Powell himself has admitted that he could not continue after 2004 because his views could not be reconciled with those of Bush. He has not admitted to the leaking, but the leaks by Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were too widely known in Washington to require any additional proof. And as to Cheney's indictment of Powell and Armitage for standing by while Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, was unjustly prosecuted for the leak of Valerie Plame's name, the facts are in; the complaint is justified.

Here again, Cheney's comments now and his conduct while in office are a reminder that there are values and principles that must be still honored when popularity and even reputation are at risk. He believed this, put country first, and acted accordingly.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy national security advisor handling Middle Eastern affairs in U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

Biting the hand that fed him
By Kori Schake

It's incredibly discouraging to see former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney vituperatively reopen disputes from George W. Bush's administration. His scorched-earth excoriation of critics makes little distinction between those who would recklessly endanger America and those who also had the country's -- and the president's -- best interests as their motivation. This cannot assist the conservative cause; in fact, it serves to remind us how much the vice president's actions have impeded acceptance of the very policies he advocates.

By his own testimony, Cheney supported, and continues to support, all the policies that most incensed the administration's critics and even some of its supporters: "enhanced interrogation techniques," the Guantánamo prison, politicization of intelligence, assertion of executive authority, sharp-edged uses of military might, and support for Iraqi expatriates as a government-in-waiting after the 2003 invasion. He denigrated both the policies (diplomatic engagement, working through international institutions) and the people (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) that argued his approach was unduly driving up the cost of achieving the president's aims.

Give Cheney his due: Many of these policies were and are essential to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The proof of which is Barack Obama himself -- a candidate who ran for president on opposition to those policies, but then adopted nearly all of them once in office, including indefinite detention and trial by military tribunal.

But if Cheney deserves credit for staunchly advocating necessary policies, he also deserves considerable blame for crafting and enacting those policies in ways that increased the cost to the president for adopting them, and made them more difficult to sustain.

The most damaging example was Cheney's vociferous support for reclaiming executive authority instead of working with congressional leaders to pass legislation that would demonstrate broad political support and establish the basis for judicial review. It freighted terrorism policies with the added requirement of subordinating the other branches of government. As Ben Wittes (whose blog Lawfare is essential reading on these issues) has often argued, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress -- as the authorizations for the use of military force showed -- and much that needed to be achieved could have been achieved with skillful engagement of the machinery of American democracy.

Executive privilege had consequences beyond setting solid foundations for sustaining the policies, too. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor powerfully argued at West Point in 2005, it left the U.S. military in the unfair position of being both "our combatants and our conscience," because the executive and legislative branches of government failed to provide them the proper framework for their actions.

But Cheney displays a contempt for Congress and those who don't agree with him to an extent that is unhealthy in a free society. The former vice president is now a private citizen. Conservatives who are public citizens, engaged in running for office and crafting policies, would do well to remember how much Cheney's approach hurt both the president he served and the causes he sought to advance. Having the right answer isn't good enough. The president and his cabinet must also engage the levers of democracy to build a broad base of support, especially when the policies have few good alternatives. His legacy has made it more difficult for conservatives to support and enact the very policies he advocated. 

Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of international security studies at the United States Military Academy. In 2007 and 2008 she was deputy director for policy planning in the State Department, and during President George W. Bush's first term, director for defense strategy and requirements on the National Security Council.

A torturous rigidity
By Dahlia Lithwick

Like most others, I write this before reading In My Time, basing my conclusions instead on Dick Cheney's statements as part of his book tour/charm offensive. If I am proved wrong when I get my hands on the book, I will amend my thoughts accordingly.

To my mind, the most striking aspect of Cheney's conduct this week has not been his widely reported unwillingness to apologize for the Iraq war; I would be surprised if he had the capacity to acknowledge personal error. I'm not even surprised by the snarling AM-radio tone he has taken, though it's clear why it might be stunning to Colin Powell and others who believed that high-level politicians do not speak of one another in the manner of The Real Housewives of D.C.

What surprises me only somewhat is the report, for instance on this week's Today show interview with Matt Lauer, that Cheney so readily describes the U.S. torture program -- including waterboarding -- as "safe, legal, and effective," and his oft-repeated claim that he has "no regrets" because the program "saved American lives." Cheney admitted in 2008 that he had been directly involved in approving abusive prisoner interrogation techniques used by the CIA and that he had personally played a critical role in approving waterboarding. Long after most torture apologists have grown weary of the fight, Cheney's legacy has been a continued devotion to the idea that torture is both legal and effective. He argues this despite the fact that virtually nobody who knows anything about torture in general and the "enhanced interrogation program" in particular agrees with any of those conclusions. It's a position espoused by a fistful of men who either created the torture program themselves or believe in legal fictions cooked up on TV shows like 24, or legal philosophers with plenty of time to ponder nonexistent "ticking time bomb" scenarios.

The U.S. torture program did not save lives. In August 2009, a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by anti-torture groups revealed that the CIA knew that that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information obtained in the war on terror. Most interrogation experts agree that information elicited through torture is neither reliable nor useful. From the outset, military advisors argued that torture made Americans less safe in the field. The vice president continues to pretend all of their expertise and experience away.

The program was not safe. Many of those subjected to waterboarding and other forms of torture while detained by U.S. forces have been damaged for life. Furthermore, it was not legal. It contravenes both long-standing U.S. domestic law and international treaties to which the United States is a signatory. That is why Japanese officials were prosecuted and convicted for waterboarding Americans in World War II. Waterboarding was only "legal" because Cheney's underling, John Yoo, briefly made it so through the memoranda he wrote for the White House Office of Legal Counsel, in the same way he might have emptied Cheney's ashtray or brought him a coaster. That required completely reinventing the definition of pain and suffering and immunizing torturers from all but the most inhuman acts. In July, a federal judge used the word "torture" to describe conduct that didn't even include waterboarding. That's because nobody, with the exception of the former vice president, believes that torture becomes not-torture simply by rewriting the law in secret for a short time.

Long after the legal and international communities have concluded that the facts do not support any of these pro-torture legal claims, Cheney will continue to argue from his dusty old toolbox of counterfactuals, declassified and now-discredited memos, and thrilling Jack Bauer plot lines. It's working for him as a legal matter, and it will probably sell a few books. But torture isn't safe, it isn't legal, and whether or not anyone will ever prove that it "saved American lives" is and has always been immaterial.

Cheney said in his Today show interview that, for some reason he could not articulate, American citizens should be spared torture, while foreigners need not be. That's precisely the kind of legal analysis that has ensured that Cheney's chief legacy will be his forever standing alone.

Dahlia Lithwick is a legal correspondent for Slate.

His cruel and unusual legacy
By Tom Malinowski

Reasonable people can disagree about most of the history that former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney relates in his new memoir, as they can about most of the controversies debated in Washington. The justification for the Iraq war, the legality of warrantless surveillance, the wisdom of engaging with Iran -- I may have strong opinions on some of these issues, but I also have respect for people (including friends who worked for Cheney) who disagree.

But there is one aspect of Cheney's legacy that people cannot reasonably disagree about, and that is torture. And here I am not referring, as journalists occasionally do, to "interrogation techniques that human rights groups claim constitute torture" (this is also part of Cheney's legacy -- convincing some Americans that there is actually a debate about the definition of the term). I am referring to techniques, such as controlled drowning, better known as waterboarding, that U.S. courts have prosecuted as torture for over 100 years, and others, like long-term sleep deprivation and "stress positions" that cause excruciating pain without leaving scars, that the U.S. government has condemned as torture when perpetrated by dictatorships like North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.

Torture has occurred in every war the United States has fought. Ethicists sometimes have considered whether there are exceptional circumstances under which individuals might be justified in violating domestic and international laws against torture. But prior to George W. Bush's administration, there was no debate in America about the legitimacy of the practice per se, any more than there was a debate about the legitimacy of rape or slavery. And the U.S. government had never before sought to give it legal sanction.

The moral costs of this shift were incalculable. The practical costs can at least be estimated. Once authorized for so called "high-value" terrorism suspects, cruel techniques made their way into interrogation guidelines issued to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, where their use helped fuel insurgencies that claimed many American lives. Misleading information extracted through torture contributed to the intelligence failures prior to the war in Iraq. Evidence needed to prosecute suspected terrorists was tainted. America's most important strategic asset -- its moral authority as a country of principles and laws -- was undermined.

Cheney says that intelligence obtained through torture saved lives. But there is no convincing evidence to support that claim. FBI Director Robert Mueller has said that no attacks on the United States were disrupted because of evidence obtained through the euphemistic "enhanced techniques." The known intelligence breakthroughs leading to the capture or killing of al Qaeda leaders came about through traditional means.

Many decent officials in the Bush administration and the military opposed Cheney's methods. A few young soldiers caught on camera using them in Abu Ghraib prison ended up in jail. Ultimately, Republicans in the Senate, led by John McCain, helped stop the use of these techniques, and President Barack Obama closed what legal loopholes remained. But so long as torture is seen as a legitimate subject for debate in American politics, Cheney's harmful legacy lives on.

Tom Malinowski is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

When Cheney was good
By Thomas E. Ricks

Dick Cheney and his old mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, are so linked by now as the unapologetic, panicky, pro-torture hard-liners of George W. Bush's administration that it is easy to forget how different they were as defense secretaries.

Reading Cheney's memoir brought this back to me. As a journalist, I covered the tail end of his time at the Pentagon and remember the vibe of the place back then.

The biggest difference between Cheney and Rumsfeld was how they handled planning for their respective wars, and especially how they dealt with their senior generals. Both were tough, but Cheney productively so, while Rumsfeld almost certainly contributed to the problem.

In 1991, during the planning for the Gulf War, Cheney pushed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to be more imaginative, more innovative. To ensure that happened, he started his own independent planning effort and let it be known that if Schwarzkopf did not come up with something else besides "hey diddle diddle, right up the middle" as an approach, the Pentagon would have other options.

By contrast, in 2002 and 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Rumsfeld thought he was reaching for innovation and instead pushed Gen. Tommy Franks repeatedly to simply reduce the size of his invasion force. Rumsfeld's nit-picking approach by itself was not wrong, but its focus was; in the process, he and Franks exhausted a planning staff that should have put aside the relatively easy question of how to invade an exhausted country with a broken military, and instead looked at what to do after getting to Baghdad.

Both men sought to control their military subordinates, but Cheney did so more successfully. Rumsfeld tended to chew on people endlessly but stop short of firing them. Cheney was a cooler customer, generally remote from his generals but quick to fire them when he wanted to -- just ask Gen. Fred Woerner, fired before the invasion of Panama, or Gen. Mike Dugan, defenestrated for being too candid with reporters. In this regard, Cheney was very similar to Robert Gates, a first-class defense secretary whose decades of intelligence work apparently taught him how to decapitate people so quickly that their heads remained in place, often with a smile on the face.

In addition, like other good defense secretaries -- Gates and William Perry come to mind -- Cheney picked his fights well. He understood that the military establishment is so huge that not every pressing problem can be addressed. He also knew that Congress would follow his lead, if he gave it to them. In his memoir, he singles out the V-22 Osprey, the Marine Corps' quixotic helicopter-airplane hybrid, as something he targeted for elimination as a way of giving Congress something to fight with him about. But when he saw the Pentagon's huge organizational chart, he put it away and never looked at it again, calculating that attempting any reorganization was a bridge too far. Rumsfeld, by contrast, produced an endless stream of "snowflakes," little querying notes that often just tired out subordinates.

All in all, as a defense secretary, Dick Cheney seems to have been much more like Robert Gates than he was like his friend Donald Rumsfeld.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of Foreign Policy's Best Defense blog.

First and foremost, a political warrior
By Jake Bernstein

For the moment, Dick Cheney's policies may seem to be in decline within the GOP, as Tea Party Republicans have largely rejected his costly military adventurism and intrusive government surveillance. But make no mistake: Today's GOP is still very much Dick Cheney's. The brutal, take-no-prisoners political tactics now in routine use by the party may be Cheney's most enduring legacy.

Cheney's method -- politics is war by other means -- is one he acquired early. As the youngest chief of staff in White House history, under President Gerald Ford, Cheney learned how to manipulate the levers of federal power from a master. Donald Rumsfeld, the previous chief of staff, taught his protégé how to influence policy in multiple ways, from the no-fingerprints leak to the late insertion in a presidential address.

Cheney was too young and the Ford administration too short-lived for him to be able to do much with this knowledge. Nor was he able to make full use of it in his next few jobs. He moved on to Congress, where he was known for his fierce anti-communism and uncompromising positions. As House minority whip, Cheney quietly supported the rise of Newt Gingrich and his Young Turks, but he left to become defense secretary in George H.W. Bush's administration before he could take advantage of their conquest. Even at that high level, he was thwarted by old administration hands who kept him from exercising his full talents. It was not until George W. Bush's administration that Cheney was able to put all his political skills to work, becoming the most influential vice president ever.

There, Cheney's knowledge, intelligence, guile, and ruthlessness were given full rein. Most of the checks in the system proved ineffective against his talents. Congressional overseers, Justice Department officials, Environmental Protection Agency scientists, and Pentagon procurement officers all found themselves rolled by Cheney and his staff at one point or another. In the march to the Iraqi war, the vice president played the press like a fiddle. Those who dared defy him were demonized or subverted. Just ask Joe Wilson or John McCain.

Today, Cheney's style of uncompromising positions and bullying tactics has become the accepted mode of governance among Republicans. And, by arms-race logic, it will eventually be the same for Democrats as well.

Cheney's prideful new memoir exults in his accomplishments without a hint of regret or too many details about how he achieved them. What shines through is the philosophy of a man who clearly believes that the exercise of power creates its own reality, that the appearance of strength becomes strength itself. A bomb doesn't just destroy a target; it sends a message. Unfetter the markets and the economy performs. Tax cuts always lead to growth, not deficits. Cheney's faith in his ability to dictate reality is unsurprising from a man whose very existence -- after five heart attacks -- can be considered an act of will.

For almost six years, the vice president moved from victory to victory before the only person who could stop him -- George W. Bush -- grew disenchanted with the results. Cheney's inability to acknowledge in his memoir the disasters his policies caused, from a ballooning deficit to the Iraq fiasco, underscores that at least for him, there were no consequences for his hubris. It's an unfortunate message for an ascendant GOP enamored with the former vice president's hard-line approach to the exercise of political power.

Jake Bernstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. In 2006, he co-wrote Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the America Presidency, with Lou Dubose.

No secret-sharer he
By Anne Weismann

In the lead-up to the Aug. 30 release of his book, Dick Cheney promised that heads in Washington would "explode" on account of its contents. So far Washingtonians' heads remain intact. But Cheney's book does remind us of its author's desire to control the story line of his vice presidency, and of a critical aspect of how he did so: secrecy.

For many, George W. Bush's presidency represents a watermark in secrecy. Americans were denied access to anything the Bush administration feared would raise questions about its legitimacy or tarnish its legacy. Toward that end, millions of emails mysteriously went missing from White House servers during critical times in the administration. And litigation by my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the National Security Archive revealed the Bush White House knew of the missing email problem, yet refused to act.

Cheney, for his part, advanced a novel and radical interpretation of his status as vice president, suggesting he was beyond the reach of many laws, including those designed to ensure preservation of the president's and vice president's papers. CREW's lawsuit on that front, while ultimately unsuccessful, established the helpful precedent that in such cases, even a vice president is not immune from legal action. The court denied us the ultimate relief we sought, but allowed the lawsuit to continue through discovery targeting the vice president's record-keeping practices. And of course the secrecy in the Bush administration was jump-started by the Cheney-led energy task force, whose inner workings remain a mystery to this day.

Cheney's new book suggests the vice president has not changed his stripes. He reveals little new information, instead resurrecting old canards; the true extent of his power and influence over the Bush administration remain as secret as ever. By all accounts, his memoir does little to fill in the gaping hole in the historical record. And with historians denied access to records that would also fill that hole, Cheney's legacy of secrecy remains intact.

Anne Weismann is chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

A memoir full of mysteries
By Robert Dallek

Dick Cheney's memoir will be essential reading for any future historian reconstructing and assessing George W. Bush's presidential term. The fact that he has been described as one of the most, if not the most, influential vice presidents in U.S. history makes any information about the man and his part in the foreign-policy decisions that were so central to the Bush administration a compelling attraction to future biographers and historians. Of course, as with all recollections by high officials, historians will never take Cheney's reconstruction of events or his explanation and defense of administration actions as gospel. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is already disputing some of what Cheney has to say as nothing more than "cheap shots," and we can be sure that others close to Bush, and possibly Bush himself, will offer correctives and alternate interpretations.

In fact, the memoir may be more interesting for what it reminds us about the mysteries that are still remaining when it comes to the Bush years -- and Cheney's role in particular. For these blank spots, historians can only wait for the opening of the archives to gain fuller information. Scholars will have a number of questions about Cheney's performance. First, was he as influential as contemporary reports made him seem? Was Bush as much under his spell as many journalists reported at the time? And if so, what sort of model should Cheney be for future presidents and vice presidents, a negative one or a positive one? In other words, was he a constructive force or simply an architect of controversial policies at home and abroad that opened Bush's presidency to so much criticism? And because Bush is currently seen as one of the poorer presidents in the country's history, how much blame should fall on Cheney? Why did Cheney seem to become so much more doctrinaire as vice president than he had been during his earlier time in government as President Gerald Ford's chief of staff and George H.W. Bush's defense secretary? Was it 9/11 that made the difference? Was he correct about the harsh treatment of terrorism suspects? How responsible was he for Abu Ghraib? What was his role in the outing of Valerie Plame? Did Lewis Libby take the fall for Cheney?

As historians gain access to the Bush administration's records, they will have more questions about Cheney as vice president, and no doubt they will also be frustrated by some questions for which we will never get satisfactory answers. But for now, the release of the memoir marks simply a further accumulation of mysteries.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek is author, most recently, of The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.

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The Road to Tahrir

The roots of Egyptians' rage can be traced back to bad economic advice from the IMF -- and the crony capitalism it left behind.

It was 1990, and President Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was in turmoil. The statist economic order built by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had come apart at the seams: Egypt's banks were failing, inflation hovered around 20 percent, and -- following the collapse of the Egyptian pound on the international currency markets -- Egyptians had begun hoarding American dollars. Mubarak also had to contend with tanking oil prices, which impacted both exports and remittances from the Gulf, and a dangerous upsurge in terrorist attacks. The assassination of Rifaat al Mahgoub, speaker of the Egyptian People's Assembly, as well as two horrific attacks against Israeli tourists (one between Cairo and Ismailiya and one on the Egyptian-Israeli border near Eilat) in 1990 alone called into question the proficiency of the state's security forces and resulted in a precipitous decline in tourism revenues. Egypt's economy -- based on subsidies, bureaucracy, and a bloated public sector -- was limping feebly toward the 21st century.

Revolution, it is often said, appears impossible before it happens -- just as afterwards it seems inevitable. For the young revolutionaries that powered Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising, the tipping point must have felt like magic. (Indeed, Alaa Al Aswany, a noted Egyptian writer and activist, describes it as a "miracle" in the forward to his most recent book, On the State of Egypt.) But the chapter between impossible and inevitable in Egypt's history is rather more prosaic -- less celestial, more terrestrial. That chapter -- and the beginning of the end for Mubarak -- starts with the economic crisis of 1990.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August of that year seemed to provide the Egyptian strongman with an answer to his financial woes. In exchange for lending diplomatic and military support to the U.S.-led coalition formed to oppose Iraq's aggression, Egypt received a "bonanza of economic rewards," as Bruce Rutherford, an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University, writes in Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World. Loans from the United States and the Paris Club, an informal group of private creditors from 19 of the world's biggest economic powers (12 of which sent military personnel to aid the U.S. invasion of Iraq), were written off and Egypt was showered with some $15 billion in emergency economic assistance. Mubarak, it seemed, could not have played his cards any better.

The aid, critical though it was to reviving Egypt's failed banking sector and stabilizing the economy, contained the seeds of Mubarak's eventual destruction. Conditioned on a demanding International Monetary Fund (IMF) restructuring program, the loans required that Mubarak cut government services, liberalize interest rates, and undertake an ambitious privatization program. They required, as Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has argued, that Mubarak break "Nasser's bargain" -- a promise to provide social services, employment, subsidies, education, and health care in exchange for exercising total control of the political environment.

Taking a longer view of events that led to the Jan. 25 revolution does not deny the importance of immediate catalysts such as the fraudulent 2010 parliamentary election or the murder of Khaled Said, a blogger who was beaten to death by police officers and for whom a Facebook page calling for the revolution was named. Nor does the focus on material well-being obscure the role of existential factors -- freedom, dignity, justice -- that inspired Egyptians to risk their lives for political change. But the gradual deterioration of economic conditions in Egypt throughout the 1990s and early 2000s coupled with the rise of an independent labor movement -- one that played an important if not critical role in Egypt's 18-day revolution -- suggests that a longer reading of history might reveal the origins of Mubarak's fall. After all, as Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, recently observed in Foreign Affairs, "pyramids crumble slowly." Perhaps so did the man who many Egyptians joked might someday build his own. 

The liberalization experiment

From a macroeconomic standpoint, liberalization was a resounding success. Egypt's economy, which had shrunk by 2 percent in 1990, was growing at a healthy 5 percent by 1996. Inflation, which had exceeded 20 percent in the late 1980s, was down to 7 percent, and investor confidence had recovered. Ten years later, Egypt would be named the IMF's "top economic reformer," recording a bullish 7 percent GDP growth for 2007. "Egypt's economy had another year of impressive performance supported by sustained reforms, prudent macroeconomic management, and a favorable external environment," concluded the IMF report from that year, which heaped praise on the "reformist cabinet" for pressing ahead with adjustments despite vocal opposition, "fuelled in part by high food-price inflation and some frustration about the lag in the 'trickle down' of the benefits of growth."

But for many Egyptians, the lack of "trickle down" at all was the story. Impressive growth numbers, from their perspective, simply meant layoffs, pay cuts, forced early-retirement schemes, and the loss of benefits. The impact of reform on employment was so pernicious, in fact, that Stella, Egypt's local beer, and Coca Cola were the only two cases where privatization led to an increase in the number of jobs, according to Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. Yasar Jarrar, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dubai and a panelist at a recent World Bank conference on investing in the wake of the Arab Spring, put it this way: "you had to be a macro-citizen to benefit" from economic liberalization.  

Membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 only made things worse for many Egyptian laborers, as reduced tariff and nontariff barriers impeded the state's ability to protect certain labor-intensive sectors. Egyptian textiles, an industry that dates back to the age of the Pharaohs, suffered mightily as Chinese and Southeast Asian producers took advantage of reduced tariffs to expand their market share. There was little doubt beforehand about how this would impact the Egyptian labor force: One USAID report in 2004 projected that the textile industry would lose 22,185 jobs and about $203.9 million in shipments, a figure that represented roughly 4 percent of the country's non-oil sector exports.

Those firms that did benefit from liberalization and WTO membership, moreover, only serviced a tiny fraction of the Egyptian populace. These firms, owned by a small number of families close to the regime, dealt primarily in construction materials, export/import, tourism, real estate, food and beverages, and high-end consumer goods that the majority of Egyptians could not afford, according to Tim Mitchell, a political economist at Columbia University. As Mitchell argued in the Middle East Report in 1999, the "major impact [of the state's neoliberal program] has been to concentrate public funds into different, but fewer hands. The state has turned resources away from agriculture, industry and the underlying problems of training and employment. It now subsidizes financiers instead of factories, speculators instead of schools."

As the IMF-led reforms progressed, laws were enacted to protect laborers from the potentially harmful side effects of liberalization, but there was often "a lack of popular or political will to enforce them," Rutherford told me in an interview. The result was that "tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs and access to subsidized housing."

At the same time, across-the-board subsidy cuts dictated by the IMF restructuring program further eroded "Nasser's bargain" with the people and compounded the plight of working class Egyptians. Although bread subsidies remained intact -- a near revolution in 1977 after President Anwar Sadat tried to revoke them was enough to keep them off the chopping block this time around -- the number of subsidized household items was slashed from 18 to 4 (bread, wheat flour, sugar, and cooking oil), according to Rutherford. But retaining bread subsidies wasn't enough to keep Mubarak's dimuqratiyyat al-khubz -- or "democracy of bread," as the Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki once described it -- from collapsing. When world grain prices spiked between 2007 and 2008, the price of bread increased as much as fivefold in private bakeries, meaning that many Egyptians who did not ordinarily rely on subsidies could no longer afford to eat. The country subsequently erupted into "bread riots" that raged until the army took over the baking and distribution of bread. In the aftermath of the riots, bread became a "symbol of defiance," as journalist Annia Ciezadlo has argued. It represented both the regime's broken promises and the yawning gap between Egyptians' expectations and the reality they faced.  

World Bank numbers paint a sobering portrait of that reality: Between 2000 and 2008 (the only dates for which statistics are available) both urban and rural poverty rates increased, with rural rates spiking from 22.1 to 30 percent. The official unemployment rate -- often criticized for being artificially depressed -- rose from 8.9 percent to 9.2 percent during the same period, although it reached as high as 11.4 percent in 2005. The long view from 1990-2008 reveals an equally telling 1.2 percent rise in joblessness. Meanwhile, the income share of the top 10 percent of wage earners increased between 1990 and 2008, and the top 1 percent made out like bandits. As Ossama Hassanein, senior managing director of Newbury Ventures and a business school professor at the American University in Cairo, told me, roughly 200 families managed to abscond with 90 percent of the country's wealth.

While Egypt's rich and poor were being wrenched in opposite directions, something new began to emerge out of the chaos. Workers started to organize. They held strikes and tentative protests, and before long Egypt had given birth to an independent labor movement -- one that was coalescing outside of the strictly monitored worker's federations, unions, and syndicates that had previously doubled as tools of government control.

Labor rears its ugly head

The labor movement caught like wildfire. Between 1998 and 2011, Egypt experienced 3,500 protests and labor strikes that mobilized more than 2 million workers, according to Beinin. The bulk of these protests occurred after 2004, when a new government, known as "the government of the businessmen," came into power. Led by Mubarak's son, Gamal, and a number of his business associates, such as steel tycoon Ahmad Ezz and economists Hussam Badrawi and Mahmud Mohieldin, the new government "privatized more in terms of total asset value in their first year in office than had been sold off in the previous 10 years," Beinin noted in a recent interview with Stanford's Center for the Humanities. "Almost immediately in the second half of 2004, you see a big spike in the number of strikes, sit-ins and other kind of workers' collective actions," said Beinin.

Most of the protests were directed at securing better wages and protecting workers from the mass layoffs that often (illegally) accompanied privatization. Protests at the Qalyub Spinning Company erupted in 2005, for example, after the mill's sale to a private investor led to widespread speculation about layoffs and wage-reductions -- speculation that was not at all unfounded given the record of Qalyub's parent company, ESCO, in previous privatizations. According to a 2005 report published by Beinin in the Middle East Report, the six ESCO companies that had been privatized before Qalyub went from employing a total of roughly 24,000 employees in 1980 to 3,500 employees in 2000.

More strikes and sit-ins occurred in 2007 at the Mansura-Spain textile factory in Dakahlia, east of Cairo, and still more in 2006, 2007, and 2008 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra. Labor unrest was by no means confined to the textile sector: air traffic controllers, railway engineers, and oil and gas workers all went on strike at various times over the last decade. By the eve of the revolution, labor unrest was so commonplace that even the sleepy desert campus of the American University in Cairo, where I was working at the time, had seen workers strike on more than one occasion. To the careful observer, therefore, the events of Jan. 25 should have seemed more a natural progression of things than a decisive break with the past. As Khaled Khamissi, author of the best-selling novel Taxi, put it: "There is continuity between those strikes [of the last decade] and the 2011 revolution."

It is, of course, impossible to trace a direct line between the gradual evolution of Egypt's labor movement and the ad-hoc decision by young people to protest the National Police Day on Jan. 25. Ahmad Maher, one of the founders of April 6, has even disputed the notion that workers played a significant role in the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime. But the origins of April 6 -- a protest that included tens of thousands of students, unemployed Egyptians, and textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra -- suggests otherwise. As Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, put it recently in the Journal of Democracy, "It is part of the genius of the April 6th Movement... that they were able to yoke labor's newfound militant energy to the national drive for democracy." In Tahrir Square, that energy took the form of slogans that linked politics with the same basic concerns that had driven workers to protest time and again over the last decade. "They are eating pigeon and chicken and we are eating beans all the time," went one of the revolution's refrains. "Oh my, 10 pounds can only buy us cucumbers now, what a shame what a shame."

A look at the young revolutionaries' initial demands also reinforces the link between the Facebook-generation activists and their intellectual forebears. In addition to demanding the dismissal of Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, the end of Egypt's infamous emergency law, and presidential term limits, protest organizers had a fourth demand: the implementation of a fair minimum wage, which last January was a meager 118 Egyptian pounds per month, roughly $20. This is a demand that had been made time and again by labor agitators over the last two decades.

Workers also played a direct role in toppling the Mubarak regime earlier this year. A sampling of headlines from the New York Times, NPR.org, and Al-Ahram, Egypt's state-owned newspaper, in the three days leading up to Mubarak's ouster yields the following: "Labor Actions in Egypt Boost Protests," "Labor Strikes Add to Pressure on Egypt's Leaders," and "Egyptian workers join the revolution." Thousands of laborers had participated in the uprising on an individual basis, but their decision to launch organized strikes on February 9 and 10 may well have solidified Mubarak's fate.

Labor unrest born of decades of economic hardship, however, was not the only way the economic restructuring that began in 1990 shaped the outcome of the 2011 revolution. The decision to open Egypt's economy also set Mubarak's government on a crash course with the military.

Sizing up the military

Egypt's armed forces, which have maintained close ties to the presidency ever since the Free Officers' coup of 1952 that brought Nasser to power, remains something of a mystery to those outside its ranks. "It's amazing how little we know about the military," said Rutherford, referring Egypt's longstanding tradition of shielding the army's financial dealings from public or parliamentary view. What we do know is that it controls a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy. Estimates of the military's economic empire -- comprised of dozens of hotels, resorts, and manufacturing plants -- run from 5 percent to 40 percent of GDP.

As the proprietor of public sector firms that enjoy a number of advantages over the domestic competition, including tax exemptions and conscript labor, the military has little to gain from market liberalization. As Rutherford explained, "If you open up the market, that cuts into the market that the military is selling to. And the military can't compete with Asian and South Asian actors." It isn't altogether surprising therefore that a 2008 U.S. Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks concluded: "We see the military's role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.... Most analysts agreed that the military views the [Government of Egypt]'s privatization efforts as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms."

The Mubarak regime's increasingly cozy relationship with real estate tycoons also rankled top military officials, who "viewed Mubarak's policy of selling land to developers at low rates as inimical to their interests," according to Harvard's Masoud. As Egypt's single largest land developer, the military has faced increased competition from private businessmen like Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a real estate mogul who was convicted last year of murdering his girlfriend, a Lebanese pop star, who have cashed in on the rapid expansion of Egypt's capital city.

While liberalization and cronyism were cutting into the military's bottom line, Gamal Mubarak appeared to be positioning himself to succeed his father. In 2002, Gamal was appointed general secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party's Policy Committee, and in 2006 he became the party's deputy general secretary, a role that many speculated would launch him into the presidency. As the ringleader of the "government of the businessmen" and the source of many of the pro-business reforms, Gamal represented a two-pronged threat to the country's military establishment: Ideology and military allegiance -- or lack thereof. A banker who believed in free-market liberalism, his policies would continue to erode their economic interests, and as Egypt's first civilian president, he would effectively pry the military away from the presidency. Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, put it this way: "You got the impression before the revolution that the military was very uncomfortable with [the succession] idea. Now they are very forthright about their distaste for it."

As late as Dec. 25, 2010, the younger Mubarak was still bullish on liberalization. "We need to immediately start a second wave of reforms... that are more ambitious and more daring," he proclaimed at the annual conference of the ruling National Democratic Party in Cairo. When anti-Mubarak sentiment hit a flashpoint a little more than a month later, in February, the military had few reasons to stand behind a regime that would be inherited by Gamal, and plenty of reasons to let it fall. By sending Mubarak packing to Sharm el-Sheikh and effectively ending discussion of a Mubarak dynasty, the military was able to assume control of the reform agenda, thereby protecting its economic interests, while also maintaining its image as the "guardian of the revolution."

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) -- the military junta now governing Egypt -- has since indicted a number of the most prominent figures in Gamal's inner circle, including former finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and former trade minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid. Perhaps this decision was simply one of expedience. After all, Ghali and Rashid are both supremely unpopular these days as a result of their association with the younger Mubarak. But as one source that has had frequent contact with Egypt's business elite over the last decade suggested, it might have been a little more personal. "The military has taken the opportunity to set these guys on the run -- a little bit of retribution -- because they were really pushing to open up the economy in ways that would hurt their interests," said the source, who asked to remain unnamed. Either way, it seems unlikely that many at SCAF headquarters lament the fact that the "government of the businessmen" won't be reconstituted anytime soon.

Peering into the future

Though Egypt's tight-lipped generals are in their sixth month at the helm, they have given few clues about where Egypt's economic policy is headed. Of the three publicly available communiqués issued by SCAF, none deals directly with the subject. Moreover, the process of passing a budget earlier this summer -- which involved rejecting IMF loans before quietly accepting $2 billion from the World Bank -- has left us with more questions than answers. It is obvious that SCAF "doesn't want to be seen as pursuing Gamal's vision," as CFR's Cook told me. But to what extent it is actually willing to reverse the trends of the last decade remains to be seen. Beyond sacking Mubarak and his cadre of reform-minded cronies, SCAF has not, in Cook's words, "fundamentally altered Egypt's economic policymaking."

Still, SCAF's decision to pass up IMF dollars in favor of soft loans from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states -- loans that come without the kinds of fiscal-policy prescriptions that contributed to Egypt's current predicament -- makes clear that neoliberal advice has fallen out of favor. The biggest question that remains unanswered, though, is what role the military will play in setting policy after this fall's parliamentary election, which is expected to usher in a new civilian government. Preferring, as Cook puts it, to reign without directly governing, the military is likely to concede many of government's quotidian requirements to elected officials. But nobody expects Egypt's generals to allow their economic interests to slip too far beyond their control. Why stop now? What remains to be seen is whether they can reverse joblessness and poor living conditions -- the harbingers of Tahrir Squre -- without dipping into their coffers. The answer to that, however, is not eminently clear.