Cheney's Real Enemy Is Bush

It seems the former vice president can't stop attacking the Obama administration. But Peter Beinart says his actual target is George W. Bush—for being soft on terror.

Soon after 9/11, Foreign Affairs published an article arguing that the struggle between al Qaeda and the United States was just a byproduct of the struggle among Muslims themselves. It was titled “ Someone Else’s Civil War.

As it happens, that’s a pretty good title for the escalating struggle between Dick Cheney and the Obama administration. On the surface, the sides are clear: Republican versus Democrat, liberal versus conservative, hawk versus dove. But the more you examine Cheney’s attacks on Obama, the more it looks like Obama has simply gotten caught in the crossfire of an intra-Republican civil war. Cheney’s real target may be less Obama than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Bush, and the other people who reined Cheney in, aren’t talking. Cheney is—and the congressional Republicans are parroting his words.

On Sunday, Cheney appeared on ABC’s This Week with Jonathan Karl. His criticisms of the Obama administration were predictable: It shouldn’t have read Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights; it shouldn’t be trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court; it shouldn’t be trying to close Guantanamo Bay; it shouldn’t rule out waterboarding. Also predictable were Karl’s questions, in which he noted that many of these criticisms could be applied to the Bush administration as well.

What wasn’t predictable was Cheney’s response. Usually, when reporters ask politicians why they’re attacking the other party for things their own side has done they deny that there is any double standard, and find some distinction to suggest that what the other guys are doing is much worse. Cheney didn’t do that. To the contrary, he repeatedly acknowledged that his gripes with Obama are also gripes with George W. Bush.

Karl: Didn’t the Bush administration also try terror suspects in civilian court? Cheney: “We didn’t all agree with that.” Karl: “You opposed the [Bush] administration’s actions of doing away with waterboarding?” Cheney: “Yes.” Karl: “Did you oppose those releases [of Guantanamo prisoners to their home countries]. Cheney: “I did.” Karl: “Did you advocate a harder line [than others in the administration on Iran].” Cheney: “Usually.”

You have to hand it to the guy. He may be an ideological fanatic, but he’s no partisan hack. Time and again, with barely a nudge from the questioner, Cheney essentially volunteered that, “Yes, George W. Bush was soft on terror, too.”

Watch the 7 Best Moments From Sunday TalkIn Cheney’s opinion, clearly, the Bush administration lost its nerve in the second term. (When, not coincidentally, Cheney’s nemesis, Condoleezza Rice, became secretary of State, and shifted power over foreign policy away from the White House). In 2003, the Bush administration abandoned waterboarding. In 2006, it closed the “black sites” around the world where detainees were held beyond the reach of any law. Throughout Bush’s second term, his administration released prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. And in Bush’s final days in office, according to David Sanger of the New York Times, he refused Israeli pleas for help in taking military action against Iran.

It’s almost as if there have been three presidencies since 9/11: 1) The Cheney administration (2001-2003 or 2004), in which the vice president—aided by his old friend Donald Rumsfeld, and his key aides Scooter Libby and David Addington—got Bush to pursue a war on terror largely outside the law. 2) The Bush administration (2004-2009), in which Bush, aided by Rice, Robert Gates, chief of staff Joshua Bolton, and the rulings of the supreme court, reign in Cheney and some of his policies. And 3) the Obama administration, which tries to bring Bush’s second term policies even more under the rule of law.

When they’re not accusing Obama of coddling terrorists and endangering the country, conservatives like to say he’s simply continuing Bush’s policies. But the truth is more complicated: He’s maintaining some of the policies of the Bush administration (2004-2009) because Bush himself repudiated some of the policies of the Cheney administration that reigned from 2001-2004.

But Bush, and the other people who reined Cheney in, aren’t talking. Cheney is—and the congressional Republicans are parroting his words. As a result, the Congressional GOP is now considerably more extreme than the Bush administration. The Bush administration oversaw hundreds of civilian trials of terrorists; today’s Republicans want to defund such trials. The Bush administration stopped waterboarding; Congressional Republicans defend the practice. The Bush administration read shoebomber Richard Reid his Miranda rights; Congressional Republicans find the practice despicable. Bush said he hoped to close Guantanamo Bay; Congressional Republicans practically consider it a national treasure.

It’s a case study in the arbitrary way policy positions emerge. Obama, while continuing many of the policies of the second Bush term, is under attack from Republicans who, in following Cheney’s line, are implicitly calling Bush an appeaser. It’s quite a political accomplishment for a former vice president whose approval ratings rival O.J. Simpson’s. Maybe the next time Cheney mouths off, the Obama administration will give Joe Biden a rest and put in a call to Crawford instead.

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Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.