People seem mystified by Dick Cheney. What on earth is he doing, popping up with such regularity defending a wholly discredited position, as he did again Monday at a Politico forum? Why would he continue to say things like invading Iraq was “absolutely the right thing to do”? The track record of utterances he compiled as vice president—all of them collected on video for our present-day delectation, like his famous “weeks rather than months” prediction to CBS’ Bob Schieffer right before we started the Iraq war—would have a person of decency and modesty hiding in self-imposed exile in the Pampean Andes.
I contend that there’s nothing mysterious about him at all. Incredible as it may seem, he does still think he was right. The tactical mistakes, if there were any, were mere details. But the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, he still undoubtedly believes. And it’s important that we understand the real reason he thinks it was the right thing to do, because Iraq failure or no Iraq failure, Rand Paul or no Rand Paul, Cheney’s view will always be dominant in the Republican Party’s higher echelons.
There were always a lot of misperceptions about the Iraq war, in the mainstream media and among liberal opponents of it. Oversimplifying a bit, the media bought that it was about 9/11; that we had to strike back. It was also, in this narrative, about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and his even more alleged nuclear capabilities. These were the reasons the Bush administration put forward to scare the public, and the media, to their everlasting dishonor, bought those arguments.
On the broad left, people tended toward the fundamental explanations of political economy: that it was about oil, or Halliburton, or, in Michael Moore’s interpretation, the Carlyle Group. Oil was a factor, a side benefit. But it wasn’t about oil, and it certainly wasn’t about Halliburton or Carlyle.
It was about establishing global American hegemony. To get this fully you have to go back to 1992, when Cheney was the secretary of defense. Cheney’s world view was wholly formed by the Cold War. The bipolar world of U.S. v. USSR, good v. evil, was all he’d known. It was the rubric under which all thought was organized. Then, suddenly, the USSR was gone! Now what?
Cheney’s Pentagon—including figures such as Paul Wolfowitz and even Colin Powell, who may be a good guy now but was fully implicated in all this at the time—set to pondering that question, and by the spring of 1992, it came up with an answer: the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), a white paper outlining future U.S. defense policy. Now that we were the only superpower in the world, it said, our main job was to make damn sure things stayed that way.
Remember: This was precisely the moment, the end of the Cold War, when most Americans were thinking that maybe we could relax a little, step back from the war footing that had characterized the previous 45 years. But the DPG said the opposite. The new posture would require a certain new tough-mindedness. We might have to thumb our noses at traditional allies. We certainly would have to expand our global reach (and keep spending new billions). And most crucially, the DPG introduced, for the first time ever in American history, the idea that preemptive war should be an official part of our policy. (Yes, it’s been unofficial policy plenty of times, but this was different.)
The DPG was enormously controversial at the time. Amid some media tumult, the first President Bush had to come out and say in essence, hey, kidding. But Cheney & Co. certainly weren’t. (For a lot more on this history, read the great Harper’s magazine piece by David Armstrong from 2002, “Dick Cheney’s Song of America,” still one of the finest pieces of Iraq war journalism we have.)
The Republicans lost the White House in 1992, of course, and were out of power for eight years. So they didn’t have a chance to act on their scheme. But then they got back in. And then came 9/11. Lo and behold! What a gift! Of course I’m not saying they were happy it happened, but imagine: If ever there were an event that could frighten the American people into embracing an aggressive foreign-policy posture that set out to establish the United States as the single global hegemon, 9/11 surely was it. It still didn’t frighten the people enough, quite, which is why the Bushies had to lie about WMD and nukes and “weeks rather than months,” but the hegemonists knew that this was their only shot to act on those 1992 schemes, and bam, they took it.
That’s why we went to war in Iraq. (We chose Iraq because of the “unfinished work” of the Gulf War, because it looked ripe for the taking, and because it was a medium-size dog whose quick whipping would scare the larger ones.) It wasn’t about terrorism or anything like that. It was about, as James Bond once sighed to Dr. No, “world domination, the same old story.”
It’s important to understand that history today because the dream of establishing global American hegemony is much more enduring and powerful on the right than all the stated reasons. Al Qaeda has receded; terrorism too; WMD was just a handy thing lying around. But the idea that the United States must maintain its hegemonic status in a unipolar world—on the right, that has staying power. And modern conservatism is organized in such a way that thousands of people are paid millions of dollars to make sure the staying power stays.
The Tea Party base, as we know, is less than enamored of these ideas. Sen. Paul articulates their views. So the feud between Paul and Cheney—and John McCain and others—is really a feud between the base and the elites. Paul is a savvy politician, and I certainly don’t count him out as the possible 2016 nominee, but we all know that in both parties, especially the GOP, the elites usually win such feuds. So Cheney will keep at it as long as he draws breath. And someday, something awful will happen, and the Cheney wing will step up to the plate and swing for the fences again.