Trumpeting his own fanfare on Fox News Sunday, Dick Cheney is back. But it was the Obama administration itself that opened wide the gates for this self-vindicating return. With the release of the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report on torture, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment of prosecutor John H. Durham to investigate CIA abuses of detainees, a crossroads was reached, and who was standing right in its middle but the former vice president. No sooner had the secret (and heavily redacted) CIA report been made available than Cheney was claiming it as vindication, proof that the possibly criminal interrogations had “saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.”
For more than a generation, the nation’s great moral turning points have pivoted on Dick Cheney, always for the worse.
Nevermind that the documents prove no such thing, and leave aside for the moment that Durham’s investigation, taking off from low-level “interrogators,” could rise up the chain of command to Cheney’s own office. Cheney’s real vindication may lay not in what he said, or in what Durham finds, but in what else the Obama administration did this week—which was to announce the continuation of “rendition,” or the dispatching of detainees to third countries for interrogation. Rendition is a policy that, until now, most thought only Cheney could truly love. Think of Maher Arar, the Canadian whose story Jane Mayer told in The New Yorker. While changing planes between Tunisia and Canada at JFK in New York, Arar was seized and secretly shipped off by an American “special removal unit” to his native Syria, where he was held for months and tortured—and ultimately set free, uncharged, to sue the U.S. government. America is finally reckoning with itself as a torture nation, but to find Cheney at the center of this historic juncture is, well, déjà vu all over again. For more than a generation, the nation’s great moral turning points have pivoted on Dick Cheney, always for the worse.
In 1975, Cheney had his first taste of real power as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, but, alas for Cheney, that was the low point of the nation’s power. From his vantage inside the emasculated White House, Cheney looked on in horror as the U.S. defeat in Vietnam played itself out. If Cheney’s life story were a screenplay, the day he stood with President Ford and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld watching footage of Americans clambering onto helicopters in Saigon would be the “inciting incident.” The whole drama of Cheney’s public life follows from that ignominy, and, with the others, he acted on it at once.
Instead of moving quickly to normalize relations with Hanoi, as the Paris Peace Accords had assumed and as the chief U.S. negotiator Henry Kissinger had intended, the Ford administration exacted its revenge by slapping the whole of victorious Vietnam with the trade embargo that had previously applied only to the North, and, presumably, only for the duration of the conflict. Instead, those sanctions lasted for 20 years, inflicting untold suffering. By helping America stake its claim as the Vietnam War’s ultimate victim, symbolized by endless fantasies of POWs held in jungle cages, Cheney was a founder of what his ilk then derided as the “Vietnam syndrome.” Resolving that America would never again know such humiliation, he, with Rumsfeld and others, began laying the groundwork for its repetition.
After five terms of rhetorical toughness in Congress (he voted against the 1986 resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela), Cheney got his chance at the real thing again when he became secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush, just in time for the end of the Cold War. But instead of seizing that opportunity to join in the historic international transformation, Cheney presided over the frivolous American war against Panama (Operation Just Cause) and over the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), the miscalculation from which today’s troubles follow. (Recall that favoring sanctions over invasion as a way to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait were military chiefs like Adm. William Crowe and Gen. Colin Powell.) The real effect of Cheney’s policies here was to keep in place Cold War attitudes and military budgets when the disappearance of the Soviet enemy had made them obsolete.
Cheney’s role in the administration of George W. Bush is well known, from his self-appointment as vice president, to his coup-like marginalizing of Bush on 9/11, to his key role in defining America’s response to al Qaeda’s heinous crime as war, to his falsification of reasons for the 2003 war against Iraq. The short of it is that America’s two largest foreign-policy problems today—the doomed war in Afghanistan and the unresolved moral catastrophe of Guantanamo—both begin with Cheney. And why should it surprise that, unlike his all-but-forgotten henchmen Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, and Addington, he is still in the nation’s face, advocating the continuation of his gravest mistakes? Where he started out aiming apparently only to defend his legacy, the old maestro of the outmoded response has wound up influencing policy once again.
The Obama administration insists that its version of rendition will be supervised and handled legally, if not necessarily humanely. But rendition is itself the revelation: a mechanism that allows for torture means torture lives on. No matter how you cut it, this bypassing of U.S. jurisdictions, protections, and official American standards of conduct and accountability, even for the sake of urgent information, reeks of ends-justify-means moral bankruptcy. Score one for Dick Cheney—a final victory.
James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.