Is this the real president?
It is a party trick well known to curious teenagers across the United States. Zoom down on Washington via Google Earth and you get an extraordinary eagle-eyed view of the world’s greatest powerhouse. There’s the White House and its West Wing. Sweeping south-east across the Potomac you soar above the Pentagon. But there is one thing you can’t do. If you scroll over the site of the vice-president’s official residence, all you will see is a blurry fuzz.
The 46th vice-president of the US, Dick Cheney, has a fondness for remaining invisible. He rarely presents himself to the media, and when he does so he likes to keep it in the family.
Take the interview he gave last October to Scott Hennen, a right-wing talkshow host with North Dakota’s WDAY radio. At the time, Iraq was imploding and the Republican Party was heading towards meltdown at the mid-term elections. So what does Hennen ask him? “Mr Vice-President, I know you’re fond of pheasant hunting in South Dakota, but there’s some great bird hunting in North Dakota. Is this going to be the year you do a little bird hunting in North Dakota?”
Cheney: “Well, I don’t know . . .”
Incisive stuff. Hennen did, though, extract a seminal sound bite from the vice-president. The discussion turned to terrorism and where to draw the line on the interrogation of suspects.
Hennen: “Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it saves lives?”
Cheney: “It’s a no-brainer for me.”
That quote, so innocently obtained, dunked Cheney himself in deep water. The man who had for months vehemently rejected the title of “vice-president for torture” found himself agreeing on air that waterboarding—holding a prisoner under water to the point of drowning in order to break their will—was a “no-brainer”.
It was a moment of rare candour from the secretive politician. For once that infamous steely guard that seems to shield Cheney slipped. Obscurity has been Cheney’s hallmark since he took office in January 2001, and that’s the way he likes it. “Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?” he quipped in 2004. “It’s a nice way to operate, actually.” But what started as a single, unguarded gaffe last October appears to be developing into a pattern. Increasingly, the focus is switching from Bush to the man who stands in the shadows behind him. July sees the publication of two books analysing the role of Cheney, one by Stephen Hayes of the neocon bible The Weekly Standard, the second a more critical work called Opportunist, by Robert Sam Anson.
Those volumes will land before the dust has settled over a classic piece of Washington Post journalism. Under the headline “The Angler”—a reference to Cheney’s secret service code name—two Post journalists, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, have dissected Cheney’s approach to his job in forensic detail. They reveal how Cheney has dictated policy in several crucial areas, including the war on terror, the economy and the environment.
In all these polarised accounts Cheney is universally presented as the most powerful vice-president in American history. He has taken an institution that John Adams, its first holder, described as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived” and turned it into a seat of power. So dominant has he been that some commentators are now wondering whether it is time to drop the “V” from his title. Cheney’s biographer, John Nichols, goes as far as to argue that “this was not George W Bush’s presidency. It was Dick Cheney’s.”
The moment the two men entered the White House it was clear Cheney would not while away the hours at state funerals. The Bush Cabinet was formed in Cheney’s image. Figures who were to become seminal—Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Scooter Libby—were all Cheney’s people.
In policy terms, too, his stamp was instantly visible, not least over the environment. Cheney and Bush are fossilÂ-fuel men to their bone marrow, but early on it became clear that Cheney was prepared to go even further than Bush in his devotion to the industry. In the 2000 election campaign, Bush had made much of his intention to cut carbon dioxide emissions. But just two months into the administration, he announced a sudden policy reversal: there would be no new regulations after all. Administration officials told The New York Times that “the views of Dick Cheney had been instrumental in the final decision”.
Cheney’s stranglehold over energy policy was made official when he was put in charge of a task force to review the country’s energy needs. The consequences were immediately apparent to those, like Eric Schaeffer, working to improve environmental standards. For 12 years Schaeffer worked at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), acting as chief enforcer of federal anti-pollution regulations. He remembers what happened when EPA scientists produced a report on the impact of clean-air restrictions on business, the findings of which ran counter to Cheney’s preconceived opinions. “A few weeks later the report disappeared from the library,” Schaeffer recalls. After months of similar irregularities, Schaeffer resigned in March 2002.
Schaeffer’s boss at the EPA, Christie Whitman, resigned the following year. According to The Washington Post series, she quit because Cheney had ruthlessly blocked her every attempt to raise anti-pollution standards. When she tried to press her case directly to Bush, the vice-president was always in the room. “You leave and the vice- president’s still there,” she told the Post.
Cheney’s impact has been partly due to his unparalleled access to Bush. Over six years in office, observers have seen a distinctive relationship develop between them. The older man is a master at the warp and weft of government. He revels in detail in a way that Bush notoriously does not. Such precision gives Cheney an edge in any policy debate.
These qualities of open access to the president, hard work and attention to detail were all present from day one. So too was a fondness for secrecy. But it took the events of September 11 2001 to bring these elements to the fore. This was the moment for which Cheney had been preparing for years. Since his days as White House chief-of-staff to Gerald Ford, living with the fallout of Nixon’s destruction, Cheney had harboured ambitions to hit back at Congress and reinstate the untrammelled authority of the president.
The Washington Post series examines the most controversial aspects of the administration’s response to 9/11—Guantanamo, the global kidnappings known as “extraordinary renditions”, torture, wire-tapping—and finds that in all these cases the road leads to the vice-president’s door. Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, Cheney had assembled a legal team and was actively planning how to roll back the restraints on the president’s executive power introduced in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.
Central to the team was Cheney’s legal adviser, David Addington. By September 18 Addington and some trusted colleagues, including the current attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, had drawn up proposals for the use of military force. By September 25 they had drafted authorisation for the interception of communications to and from the US without court permission. By November 6 they had scripted a memo that conceived a new legal system that would allow alleged terrorists to be held indefinitely without charge. If necessary, they would be tried through “military commission”—a concept that Cheney had Bush approve over dinner.
Addington’s team operated largely in secret. When CNN announced the military commissions on November 13, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was heard to exclaim: “What the hell just happened?” Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, had also been left in the dark.
The pattern repeated itself the following year when Addington and his team drew up legal advice that in effect tore up the Geneva convention. Under its terms, the president had the right to order any means of interrogation of a terror suspect no matter how cruel or inhumane. According to The Washington Post, further secret opinion approved as lawful a range of previously banned interrogation techniques, including that little “dunk in water”. The first time Powell and Rice heard about the torture memo was two years after it had been written; they read about it in a newspaper.
And then there was Iraq. If 9/11 was Cheney’s moment, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 may come to be seen as his undoing. Apart from Rumsfeld, Cheney did more than any other member of the administration to lay the path to Baghdad. He had set his eyes on toppling Saddam well before 9/11, and by the time he entered the White House had framed in his mind a rationale of pre-emptive military action.
Bush, by contrast, had no such appetite or vision. Consider the polar views that were expressed by the two men during their televised debates during the 2000 election. In debate with Al Gore, Bush said: “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say,‘We do it this way; so should you’.” Cheney struck a very different tone when he was asked what he would do were Iraq found to be developing weapons of mass destruction: “We’d have to give very serious consideration to military action to stop that activity,” he replied.
In all of this it would be crude to suggest that Cheney called the shots while Bush merely saluted and shuffled behind. In the final analysis the buck stops with Dubya. But to say that Bush made all the big decisions, having duly taken the advice of his VP, would also be to miss the nuance of their relationship. In many cases the advice that Cheney gave his president was so narrowly cast that there could only be one serious outcome.
In the case of Iraq, the consequences are plain to see. What is less clear are the consequences for Cheney’s own fortunes. In recent months he has suffered a string of setbacks that have weakened his standing within the administration. He has lost in the most humiliating circumstances several of his closest people: Rumsfeld, Bolton, Wolfowitz and Libby. The Supreme Court has also been nipping at Cheney’s heels, overturning several important aspects of his anti-terror laws. But it would be foolhardy to write off this supreme political machine quite yet. Terminator-style, he has a way of crawling back after every blow.
For the past year a tug-of-war has been going on within the Cabinet, with Bush in the middle. Rice, together with Rumsfeld’s replacement at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, has been pulling the president in the direction of negotiating with Tehran over what the US claims is its nuclear weapons programme. On the other side, arguing doggedly that military solutions may be necessary, is yet again Cheney. The balance of the debate has begun to swing in Cheney’s favour.
Unthinkable though that may seem in the light of Iraq, he still appears to believe in the efficacy of shock and awe. The question now is: does he have one last gasp left in him?
All these struggles have left those at the sharp end of his dealings profoundly gloomy about the US’s future. Michael Ratner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, says: “Dick Cheney has changed the whole landscape of the country. And no matter who takes over from him, I’m not convinced we will ever get back to where we were before him.”—Â