A man of
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.