In the days before his autobiography was published, perhaps to pump up sales, Dick Cheney predicted that his book would have “heads exploding all over Washington.” As it turned out, there were a few predictable tantrums – Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice bit back against criticisms directed at them on disputes familiar to students of the George W. Bush administration – but not much more.
There is one obvious reason for the calm response to the former vice-president’s self-styled bombshells. The so-called War on Terror and all the controversies around it – from the decision to invade Iraq to the use of torture, or “enhanced interrogation”, on detainees – seem so distant from the problems that beset the US today.
For a country mired in a deep economic slump and a generational crisis of confidence, Cheney’s dogged, dogmatic defence of the Bush administration’s record appears almost irrelevant, not to say tone deaf to the state of the country when he left office.
Take this passage from the last pages of the book, when Mr Cheney focuses on the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. He writes: “We need to make clear to the Russians and our friends and allies that we will be aggressive in expanding the borders of the free world and that Russia has to make a choice.”
Certainly, the US is still by far the most powerful country in the world and it can seek to persuade and pressure Russia, as it can try with any country. But the underlying assumption – that the US can present Russia with a choice and send it into a diplomatic Siberia if it fails to choose wisely – is starkly out of date.
As the story of one of the most influential conservative leaders in the US of the past two decades, Cheney’s biography deserves attention. His book is clearly written and readable, compelling in passages, especially in his account of the infighting that took place in the administration over the surge of troops into Iraq and policy towards North Korea.
It is also, at times, oddly disengaged. Once a raucous young man, Cheney morphs into the cold-blooded conservative operator with a job in the White House by his thirties, without really giving the reader a sense of how he rose so far so fast, or how he formed his views. Cheney, and his contemporaries, seem to have the mindset of military commanders, convinced they know what is right, with little need to explain their actions.
In one anecdote, Cheney recounts how he was hired in the seventies by Donald Rumsfeld, who became a mentor, friend and later his defence secretary in the Bush administration.
Ushered into Rumsfeld’s office, he was initially ignored. Eventually, Rumsfeld (who was heading the Office of Economic Opportunity) looked up from his desk and barked: “You, you’re congressional relations. Now, get the hell out of here!” Cheney says he didn’t realise he was being hired until some time after he had left Rumsfeld’s office. Over time, Cheney would develop the same habit of barking orders himself.
Much of Cheney’s career in Washington is taken up fighting wars, with telling differences between the two large conflagrations he managed in the Middle East.
As secretary of defence, Cheney presides over the build-up to the first Gulf War in 1991 under the guidance of a master diplomat, George Bush Snr. Allies are carefully assembled. The Israel dimension is carefully managed. Expectations are sober and when victory comes quickly, troops are withdrawn. The second time around, in response to 9/11, allies are issued ultimatums. Threats are exaggerated, expectations raised. Possible problems are dismissed and critics traduced. Iraq is eventually secured, after a fashion, but at what cost?
In his eight years in office, the world beyond the borders of Cheney’s mindset has changed dramatically. China, which rose like a phoenix from 2000, gets a few pages. The global economy is barely discussed, even though the competitive landscape was remade while he was in office.
But Cheney carried on as he had always done, doing what was “right”.
He says he was proved correct that the US would be welcomed as liberators, on the basis that the soldiers were cheered into Baghdad when the city fell. Pages (and years) later, he acknowledges what many had warned of before the invasion – that the US had inevitably become ensnared in Iraqi’s complex and violent religious politics. While he laments the deaths of American soldiers, he barely mentions the suffering of Iraqi citizens.
This is the biggest hole in Cheney’s book. He never quantifies the cost of US policies under his watch, financially, psychologically or to US standing and influence in the world. He leaves office saying he has left the US safer. Certainly, it is safer against terrorist attacks. Safer, but not stronger.
The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, by Dick Cheney, Threshold Editions, RRP$35