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09.07.11

Cheney's Love Letter to Himself

Don’t let Dick Cheney’s gruff, arrogant attitude fool you, says Paul Begala. His memoir can’t hide the fact that he was one of the most destructive public officials of our time.

Dick Cheney calls his memoir In My Time. This is, apparently, Cheney's time; we all just live in it. From the title on, Cheney the author seems hopelessly, blindly, foolishly, sloppily in love with his subject. Condoleezza Rice may be teary and weak; Colin Powell may be timid and meek; even George W. Bush has a wobbly streak. But not our Dick. Cheney has written a 576-page love letter to himself.

It ought to be a 576-page apology. Few people have strutted and fretted upon the stage longer, or done more damage, than Dick Cheney. And yet I am glad he has written his memoir, because it allows us to have a much-needed debate about Cheney's policies. And yet Cheney's side of the debate is neither full nor candid. Perhaps even more telling than what he puts into his book are the things Cheney leaves out. Here is a brief compendium of other parts of the record that Cheney either ignores entirely or glosses over:

Cheney ignored the al Qaeda threat until it was too late. For all of the interesting experiences and important assignments in Cheney's long tenure of government service, he will forever be defined by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The hard truth is the attacks could have been prevented; America should have been protected. Cheney bears some responsibility for this, no doubt. But he does not address his malign neglect of the al Qaeda threat—nonfeasance that proved deadly.

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Copies of 'In My Time', a new book by former US Vice President Dick Cheney, are on display at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, August 30, 2011. (Michael Reynolds, EPA / Landov)

Tellingly, Richard Nixon appears more often in Cheney's book than Osama bin Laden. Cheney mentions the 9/11 attacks again and again, although ten years later, the talismanic effect has largely worn off. Instead, you see a desperate old man seeking to distract history from his own catastrophic failure to prevent the attacks before they occurred, or kill bin Laden after.

But for Aaron Burr, who committed treason and killed Alexander Hamilton, Dick Cheney would be the worst vice president in American history.

Although he boasts of receiving a more detailed President's Daily Brief (PDB) than his boss, Cheney does not discuss the infamous PDB of August 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Richard Clarke, the White House's top terrorism official, who had served four presidents and whose desperate efforts to warn the Bush-Cheney White House about the impending attack have been well-documented, is not mentioned at all.

And when Cheney writes about the task force on terrorism he was ordered to lead four months before the 9/11 attacks, he makes himself sound as busy as the proverbial beaver. Less self-interested observers say the Cheney task force did little or nothing. The Washington Post said "Neither Cheney's review nor Bush's took place." The Washington Monthly wrote: "Cheney's security task force did nothing for four months, lurching into action only after terrorists actually attacked America on September 11."

And the attacks came. And Cheney wants all knowledge of his dereliction of duty tossed down the memory hole.

The Bush-Cheney team allowed Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora. In the first months of the war in Afghanistan, we had bin Laden pinned down. According to the official report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was trapped like the rat he was in a collection of caves and tunnels in a part of eastern Afghanistan called Tora Bora. Bin Laden was so certain he was about to be killed he wrote his last will and testament. The United States had tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, but, according to the Senate report, "The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines." And bin Laden escaped. Nowhere in his book does Cheney discuss this historic blunder.

"Deficits don't matter." When Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill became alarmed that the Bush-Cheney economic policies would explode the deficit, he turned to his old friend Dick Cheney. After all, Cheney had recruited him for the job and had served with him in the Ford Administration. But when O'Neill began to express his concerns, Cheney blew him off. "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter," he said. "We won the midterms. This is our due." And a month later O'Neill was history. We know all this because of O'Neill's candor. But Cheney does not mention it at all.

We literally owe Cheney and his crew a debt we can never repay. Cheney was instrumental in taking America from its largest surplus to its largest deficit—the worst fiscal reversal in modern American history. Nowadays you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Republican kvetching about deficits. But none of them mentions that it was a Republican administration that created them.

Cheney opposed sanctions on the terrorist regimes in Iran and Libya. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which punished the thugs in Tehran and Tripoli. As the former secretary of defense, Cheney knew (or should have known) of the criminality of those regimes. But as the CEO of the oilfield services giant Halliburton, Cheney put profit ahead of patriotism. His firm got around sanctions against Iran, trading with the enemy through a foreign-based subsidiary. Cheney blasted the Clinton administration's get-tough-on-terrorists policy. He whined that because of the Clinton sanctions, U.S. companies like Halliburton were "cut out of the action" in Iran. "We seem," he said, "to be sanction-happy as a government."

The millions of dollars Halliburton paid Cheney allow him to move with ease among three luxury homes. But some of those millions came from enriching and empowering terrorist-supporting regimes that hate America.

If you think about the crises America faces—global terrorism, an overstretched military, crushing deficit and debt—all of them were made worse by Dick Cheney. His policies crippled the strongest economy on earth; he dropped his guard when he should have been vigilant; and he left the country weaker, poorer and more divided than the day he took power.

It is hard to find, in the annals of American history, a public servant less competent and more harmful. True, Vice President Aaron Burr committed treason and killed Alexander Hamilton. But for Burr, Cheney would be the worst vice president in history.

To be so wrong for so long is remarkable indeed. Don't let Mr. Cheney's gruff, arrogant attitude fool you, and I will not let good manners prevent me from saying it: Dick Cheney is one of the most incompetent, destructive public officials of his time, our time, or my time.