In politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s most recent and thoroughly extraordinary public support of torture has produced, with almost mathematical precision, the following chain of events:
People who think Cheney is scary in his defense of violating international treaties and U.S. laws, smashing the heads of suspected terrorists against walls, threatening them with rape and electric drills and subjecting them to waterboarding—an ordeal perfected in the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition—howled. They believe Cheney is completely gonzo.
As soon as this reaction to his imperious appearance on Fox News settled in, the equal and opposite reaction was heard: Cheney is completely right. And just trotting him out to promote his forthcoming memoir—“It is going to be a great book,” Cheney helpfully tells us—isn’t enough. Why not have him run for president?
This, too, inspires a reaction: Go ahead. Make my day.
The rhetorical Cheney-for-president boomlet was touched off by The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, who mused that the 2012 campaign might well be waged on national security issues—assuming, as it is reasonable to assume—that something will put President Barack Obama on the defensive over foreign policy. And if that comes to pass, Taranto speculated, who better than Dick Cheney to represent the Republicans?
Though much attention is given to Cheney’s energetic support of torture, less has been drawn to his apparent willingness to start yet another Middle East war, this one with Iran. Asked by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace why the Bush administration didn’t “take out the Iranian nuclear program,” Cheney replied: “It wasn’t my decision to make. ... I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues.”
Cheney noted, pointedly, that the Bush administration decided to pursue diplomacy but the Iranian nuclear program continues apace. “We can speculate about, what might have happened if we’d followed a different course of action,” he said. “As I say, I was an advocate of a more robust policy than any of my colleagues. But I didn’t make the decision.”
The decision, had Cheney made it, would likely have been to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. Such an attack would almost certainly have touched off a broader Middle East conflict, further inflamed regional passions against Israel (on whose behalf it would be assumed the U.S. acted), alienated allies around the world and destroyed any chance that Iraq would emerge from years of war and occupation as politically independent from the influence of the neighboring regime in Iran.
Top Pentagon officials were on record as opposing such a bombing campaign. Obviously the military has enough on its hands with the botched Iraq endeavor and the equally botched war in Afghanistan, both of which were prosecuted by the Bush-Cheney team. These conflicts now present persistent crises for the United States. They continue to kill and maim hundreds of American servicemen and -women, and the wars may well entangle us right through the 2012 election season.
It would be easy—too easy—to dismiss Cheney as a cranky old man, a political has-been or just a budding author out to sell some books. He is all these, and more. He represents the thinking of a significant number of conservatives who still believe that the United States is a unique and unrivaled global power that can bomb, invade, occupy and torture its way to security. The ancient Romans believed much the same.
The influence of this vocal group within the Republican Party means that any of its presidential contenders will have to answer to it. So if the fanciful prospect of a Cheney presidential candidacy is too laughable to give it much thought, ponder the distinct possibility of Sarah Palin relying on this crowd for her foreign policy tutorials.
Laugh again. But Obama is going to spend most of his first term trying to clean up the foreign policy messes left by the Bush administration, and it is not at all clear that he will succeed. If it turns out that national security worries nag at the electorate in three years, voters deserve more than reckless bombast as an alternative.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.