Across the Great Divide: A salute

Barton Gellman is the Washington Post reporter who has written the new book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Gellman invited Paul Mirengoff and others to comment on his book at TPMCafe. Gellman deserves credit for inviting Paul to engage in the online discusssion of the book and Paul reciprocates the spirit in his comments. Paul’s recap of his discussion online discussion with Gellman is here.

Paul invokes the metaphor of the Great Divide in his Power Line posts flagging his TPMCafe comments. Robbie Robertson also invokes the metahpor in his song “Across the Great Divide,” in which the singer pleads with dear Molly: “Try and understand your man the best you can.” Consistent with the song, Paul tries to understand Gellman the best he can. Though Paul finds Gellman’s book (which I haven’t read) unfairly weighted against Cheney, Paul is generous in his treatment of it and offers his own criticisms of Cheney, which I don’t think I share.

In order, Paul’s comments can be found here (November 17), here (November 19), here (November (20), here (one of two on November 21), and here (two of two on November 21). One of the highlights of Paul’s comments occurs in the first of his two November 21 posts:

To understand the context in which Cheney operated, I recommend two books: War and Decision, an inside account of the early years of the war on terror by former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Failure Factory: How Unelected Bureaucrats, Liberal Democrats, and Big Government Republicans Are Undermining America’s Security and Leading Us to War by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times. (Gertz takes a far less sanguine view than Bart of the CIA’s good faith in assessing whether Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons).

Bart does a better job of providing context when he acknowledges that some of what Cheney did was a reaction to the post-Watergate assault on presidential power. Bart suggests, however, that Cheney overreacted because under Reagan the president’s powers were “substantially restored” (page 101). But he doesn’t provide any analysis of this question; instead he cites David Gergen. Yet Gergen’s view is far from universally accepted, and by citing only Gergen, Bart gives short shrift, in my opinion, to the Cheney side of the story.

Bart also does not sufficiently entertain the possibility (I would say probability) that Cheney’s views nearly always prevailed for a long while, not for any nefarious reason or as the result of devious methods, but because (a) as a former Secretary of Defense, former White House Chief of Staff, and important one-time member of Congress, he was hugely respected and (b) the things he was saying made great sense (correctly so, I think) to key players, especially the president, during the first administration. In the second administration, when Cheney’s views stopped seeming quite so self-evident, they began to prevail far less frequently. All of this is normal.

Bart salutes this concept, but I think Angler would have been more balanced had he paid more attention to it.

Gellman responds here. On the legal issues Paul touches on in his final post, John Yoo’s memoir War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror is also worthy of consideration.

PAUL adds: One point that I didn’t make during the debate, but will probably present in a future post, is this: Cheney spent a huge amount of capital in pushing so relentlessly his program for pursuing the war on terrrorism. Gellman argues, I think correctly, that the expenditure of that captial reduced his influence in President Bush’s second term. Gellman seems to cast this scenario as a morality tale of sorts.

I prefer to see it as a shrewdly calculated approach that paid great dividends for our country. From my perspective (and I’m pretty sure from the vice president’s) It was far more important that Cheney’s impact be at its maximum early in the war on terrorism. If Cheney lost influence after we had broken up plans for follow-up attacks in the aftermath of 9/11, dealt huge set-backs on al Qaeda, removed Saddam Hussein, and set out the general parameters of the war on terrorism, he would still have done more good (from his perspective and mine) than any vice president in history and many presidents as well.

It was also quite possible that Cheney’s influence would not diminish in a second term despite the expenditure of political capital. Nothing succeeds like success. The vigorous response to 9/11 and the absence of additional attacks, coupled with the economic growth that followed the Bush tax cuts (which Cheney played a huge role in) were enough to see Bush re-elected. If our initial success in Iraq had continued, Bush would have remained popular and Cheney would probably have retained all or most of his influence.

So Cheney’s “gamble” was a prudent one. If he lost, he would have still have led us to success in the war on terrorism. If he won, he would, in addition, have retained the ability to heavily influence or even control foreign and national security policy in Bush’s second term. Oh, how I wish he had won.

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