A legacy to be proud of

My Sunday Examiner column considers the Cheney vice presidency. I presented most of the discussion during a week-long internet debate last month about Barton Gellman’s recent book on the subject. My column brings together in one place my main views:

Between now and January 20, expect a steady stream of reflections about the Bush presidency and its legacy. Such commentary is normal when a presidency draws to a close. But the end of the current administration will also likely provide the occasion for an assessment of Vice President Cheney’s legacy, and this is unusual. I recall no such ruminations on the vice presidencies of Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, or Al Gore, all of whom, unlike Cheney, left office without having retired from politics.

How one assesses Cheney’s vice presidency depends on how one views the policies pursued by President Bush during his first term, when Cheney’s influence was at its apex. In particular, it depends on how one views the response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Because opinions on this question have hardened, debate over the Cheney vice presidency can be less than fruitful.

However, Barton Gellman, in his book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, provides a path to a less ideologically driven assessment of the vice president. Gellman plainly is no fan of the policies Cheney advocated, but his focus is less on the merits of those policies than on the way he says Cheney was able to impose them.

Gellman argues (1) that Cheney broke “the rules of good process” by at times “cutting out” the president’s key advisors on important decisions and (2) that Cheney’s aggressive tactics caused him to lose influence in Bush’s second term. Serving up something of a morality play, Gellman writes: “Cheney had disturbed the proportions of things, overleaping customary bounds. . .Nemesis [the Greek goddess of retribution] arrived to knock him down.”

If Gellman’s reporting is correct, President Bush did make some important decisions urged by Cheney without having talked to key advisors who held dissenting views. But the president has the absolute ability to consult with anyone he wants; the vice president has no authority to cut people out. Thus, if anyone broke “the rules of good process,” it was Bush, not Cheney.

Bush did so, presumably, because he had great faith in his vice president’s judgment. After all, Cheney had been Secretary of Defense, White House Chief of Staff, CEO of a large energy-related company, and an influential member of Congress. Why wouldn’t his views command enormous respect, especially when it came to the issues of defense and energy on which Cheney concentrated?

Moreover, the policies Cheney promoted during Bush’s first term must have made great sense to the president. In particular, Cheney’s advocacy of aggressive measures in response to 9/11 probably sold itself. In Bush’s second term, when Cheney’s views stopped seeming quite so self-evident, the president became more inclined to consult with others. This dual scenario doesn’t sound like bad process.

There is also a certain naivety to Gellman’s discussion of Cheney’s approach to bureaucratic battles. It’s as if the only sharp elbows in the executive branch during Bush’s first term belonged to the vice president and his staff members. When others in the executive branch finally play hardball late Gellman’s the book, the author portrays it as a reaction to Cheney’s tactics – Cheney’s “comeuppance” in the “morality play.”

This rendering bears little relation to the real Washington, where bureaucratic in-fighting is a longstanding art-form and often a prerequisite to making a contribution. To understand the milieu in which Cheney actually operated, I recommend “War and Decision,” by former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and “Failure Factory” by Bill Gertz of The Washington Times. Feith’s book shows, for example, how the State Department managed to implement its own plan for post-invasion Iraq even though President Bush had signed off on a different plan. In this context, Cheney’s maneuvering can be viewed simply as one strategist usually (but not always) outwitting other masters of the same game.

Gellman suggests, however, that through his tactics Cheney unleashed a reaction that caused his power to diminish and thus ultimately outwitted himself. More likely, any diminution in the vice president’s influence resulted from facts on the ground in Iraq. In any event, I think that Cheney gets the last laugh.

By exerting maximum influence early in the war on terrorism, Cheney set its course. He may have lost influence after we smashed plans for follow-up attacks following 9/11, inflicted huge set-backs on al Qaeda, toppled Saddam Hussein, and set out the general parameters of the war on terrorism. But Cheney might well consider these accomplishments a legacy of which he can be proud, and more of a legacy than any other vice president, and many presidents, can claim.

This takes us back to where we began. How one regards the Cheney vice presidency depends on what one thinks of the administration’s response to 9/11.

For me, it’s not a close call. As my blog partner John Hinderaker has pointed out, after a stream of attacks throughout the 1990s and the early years of this decade, there were no successful attacks inside the United States or (wars aside) against American interests abroad in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. This has also been true in 2008, unless one counts the recent attack in Mumbai. That attack illustrates the consequences of rejecting the aggressive, proactive response to terrorism that the U.S. adopted.

Our success against terrorism did not occur by accident. For example, as Thomas Joscelyn persuasively argues, following 9/11, high-value detainees gave up critical life-saving information during their interrogations. These interrogations were successful because the administration came up with rules under which, without suffering real injury, those who had plotted to kill us divulged their secrets.

If our tactics have reduced our popularity abroad, and if that matters much, our newly elected leader can probably remedy any damage. The loss of life from successful terrorist attacks could not have been remedied.

Protection of our homeland and preservation of innocent American lives form the core of the Cheney legacy.

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