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What If Cheney's Right?

The former veep had lots of reasons to cross swords with Obama yesterday, writes The Daily Beast’s Reihan Salam. The biggest one may be: He’s setting himself up if Obama fails to protect America from another attack.

05.22.09 7:46 AM ET

The question everyone wants to know is: What's Dick Cheney up to? Well, he's up to a lot. He's fighting a bureaucratic war from the Bush administration. He's firming up his support within the GOP. And he's laying the groundwork for a new campaign that poses a terrifying question: What if Cheney's dark vision of the war on terror is right?

After leaving the White House, Cheney has waged a low-intensity guerrilla campaign against President Barack Obama. But what most observers fail to understand is that this follows directly from Cheney’s high-intensity guerrilla campaign against President Bush that lasted for most of his second term. At the start of his speech yesterday afternoon, Cheney noted that he doesn't speak for George W. Bush. And that might be the understatement of the year.

National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell.

Though it's hard to imagine that President Bush is thrilled about every aspect of Obama's defense policy, it for the most part represents a faithful continuation of the kinder, gentler policies Bush pursued during his second term, many of which the former vice president bitterly opposed. After 9/11, Bush was more Cheney than Condi: aggressively unilateral, dismissive of diplomacy, eager to use force. After 2006, as the violence in Iraq threatened to consume his presidency and as Congress and the courts horned in on national-security policy, Bush was more Condi than Cheney. As a candidate, Obama condemned the first Bush and he essentially pretended that the second one didn't exist. Another way of putting this is that Obama declared war on Cheneyism.

While the former president has told the press that his successor "deserves my silence," Cheney has filled the vacuum left by a national Republican leadership in freefall, sensing that only he has the toughness and the credibility to fire back at Obama. We often hear that Cheney is a political liability for Republicans. But according to a new CNN poll, there's been a dramatic eight-point increase in favorable views of Cheney since he left office. While 55 percent of the country still wants him to crawl into the dark hole from whence we found Saddam, 37 percent want him to babysit their child. Well, not quite. It does seem, however, that Republican voters are rallying around the former vice president. Cheney is laying the groundwork for a critique that will have more resonance when the Obama White House, which now seems so deft and effective, stumbles.

For Cheney, the fact that there were no post-9/11 terror attacks on his watch is adequate proof of the value of his policies, including his zealous advocacy of the coercive interrogation techniques Obama has condemned and outlawed. To put it bluntly, the fact that there was no major terrorist attack after 9/11 during the Bush years will be used as a powerful political weapon for many years to come, particularly if al Qaeda manages to kill civilians on American soil ever again. Perhaps Cheney won't explicitly say, "I told you so" if that dark day does come, but he just might. It's worth noting that the absence of a major attack since 9/11 is, as President Bush used to remind the public, not something we can count on, whether or not we waterboad high-value targets. Al Qaeda has inspired a decentralized, world-spanning movement that is constantly plotting new and creative ways to murder Americans, whether in Bali or Mumbai or, chances are, an American city near you. The truth is that we've been lucky.

The real driver of America's homeland-security success has been the military's talent for killing and capturing members of al Qaeda and its allies at a ferocious clip. The Obama White House has embraced this approach with gusto, which is why neoconservative hawks have given the president the benefit of the doubt. To the consternation of international human-rights watchdogs, the new national-security team has sharply increased its targeted killings in al Qaeda strongholds. A number of Democrats, including many who backed Barack Obama during the campaign, have argued that calling the fight against al Qaeda a war is a mistake. It's clear, though, that Obama himself rejects that view, and that he is willing and eager to use the war-making powers he's inherited from Bush, including the use of military detention without trial and military commissions and other measures that fill civil libertarians with hair-pulling rage.

So why does the fight over Guantánamo and waterboarding matter when Obama has adhered so closely to a Bush-era strategy? National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell. It doesn't matter that Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan or that he's embraced rendition. To Cheney, Obama's anti-torture stance represents the moral vanity of a naïve one-worlder.

We'll be hearing much more about this new culture clash. During the hearings on Obama's first Supreme Court appointment, Republicans will spend more time hammering the Democratic nominee on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush than about Roe v. Wade. At the moment, Obama looks untouchable. But the politics of national security could prove his undoing.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.