The Magazine

Cheney Speaks

What he says, and doesn’t say, is revealing.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On page 251, Dick Cheney admits a mistake. He had shot his friend Harry Whittington in the face, and in the hours that followed, did not put out a statement about the accident. “In retrospect,” he writes, “we should have.”

Young Cheney Photo

Donald Rumsfeld, Betty Ford, Dick Cheney, 1974

Getty Images

This is not an important moment in the book, or in Cheney’s vice presidency. But since the earliest days of his first term, reporters and commentators have demanded that Dick Cheney apologize for something—anything—that he did in his official capacity as the country’s second in command. They won’t find many others in the pages of In My Time.

The controversial fight to keep secret participants in the meetings of his energy task force? “It was a major victory for both us and for the power of the executive branch.” Massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003? “The Bush-era tax cuts helped grow the economy and create jobs.” That Saddam Hussein had a relationship with al Qaeda? “Charges that would stand the test of time.” Terrorist surveillance? “This program is one of the things of which I am proudest.” Military commissions? “I believe it provides the best forum in which to try enemy combatants of the United States.” Enhanced interrogations? “The program was safe, legal and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives.” Guantánamo Bay? “It’s not Guantánamo that does the harm, it is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it.”

Those who hoped to see in this 576-page volume a contrite and compromising Dick Cheney will be sorely disappointed. But readers interested in understanding the decision-making and dynamics of the Bush administration will find a compelling examination of those eight years, which spans nearly half the book. The rest, an account of Cheney’s life and early career, provides a fascinating look at the events and experiences that shaped the man who would become America’s most powerful and controversial vice president. While Cheney does not engage in much second-guessing of the Bush-era policies with which he is most often associated, In My Time nonetheless includes candid and sometimes surprising assessments of the debates surrounding the decisions that led to those policies, and those in the Bush administration who participated in them.

George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate to help him govern. While Cheney brought national security bona fides and a certain level of seriousness to the ticket, he did not give Bush a boost in any of the states that would be important to his election. Cheney had been living in Texas and spent his political career representing Wyoming, with its three electoral votes. Bush had sought Cheney’s permission to consider him as a possible vice presidential candidate several times, beginning in early 2000; Cheney, who had resolved in his own mind that he was done with politics and had given those assurances to the leadership of Halliburton, repeatedly turned him down. When Cheney finally accepted, in July, he did so after Bush described in detail the substantive role he wanted a Vice President Cheney to have.

Those significant responsibilities started early when Cheney was asked to lead the administration’s energy task force. It’s a job that might sound like a typical warm-bucket-of-spit vice presidential task—but for the context. California was experiencing rolling blackouts, and there was widespread concern that they would spread to the rest of the country, already near recession.

But like so many things that seemed important before 9/11, Cheney’s role running the energy task force looks insignificant in hindsight. The broad contours of Cheney’s role as the architect of national security and foreign policy after 9/11 are well known. In 2006 I asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to name an issue on which Cheney had been particularly influential. “That’s a long list,” she replied. After thinking for a moment, she said: “I think the way that the vice president has had his biggest impact in many ways is just the intellectual contribution to the conceptualization of the war on terror.” Most of that impact came in the first term of the Bush presidency when, in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush came to rely on Cheney to supply the historical and philosophical arguments in support of actions that he instinctively believed were necessary to defend the country.

Nearly everyone agrees that Cheney’s influence waned in the second term, and that includes Cheney, whose chapter laying out the arguments he lost on major foreign policy problems is both edifying and discouraging.

In the fall of 2006, he writes, Bush issued a stern warning after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. The president noted that North Korea was a leader in proliferation of nuclear technology, “including transfers to Iran and Syria,” leading state sponsors of terror: “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.”

Six months later, Cheney learned from Israel’s top intelligence official that North Korea had, in fact, worked with Syria on nuclear technology. The North Koreans had helped Bashar al-Assad build a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert that bore “a striking resemblance to the North Korean reactor located in Yongbyon.” A subsequent briefing by American intelligence informed Cheney that “sustained nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria” had probably started a decade earlier.

The implications were profound. President Bush had spent much of his first term sounding alarms about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists and warning rogue states against proliferation. And the administration had participated in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program with the objective of inducing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Within a six-month period, top Bush administration officials learned that the North Korean program had progressed to the point where they could conduct a crude nuclear test, and that Kim Jong Il’s regime had shared nuclear technology with Syria.

North Korea’s attempts to hide its behavior had been so ineffective as to be almost provocative: Among the participants in the six-party talks was the head of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. The same man had been photographed in Syria with the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Worse, the pages of North Korea’s nuclear declaration itself tested positive for traces of uranium! Even the North Koreans’ attempts to exonerate themselves ended up providing more evidence of wrongdoing.

Cheney argued for tough measures on both North Korea and Syria. The Israelis had asked the United States to destroy the reactor in Syria. Cheney told Bush he thought we should do just that as a way to send a message to both the Syrians and the North Koreans. But no one agreed with him. So the United States did nothing. Cheney told Bush that the Israelis would act if we did not; Rice told him they would seek a diplomatic solution. On September 6, 2007, Israel obliterated the facility: “The North Koreans and the Syrians were clearly violating the red line drawn by President Bush on October 9, 2006,” writes Cheney.

The failure to punish them for these transgressions was only half the problem. With the State Department in the lead, the Bush administration would spend the remainder of its second term trying to persuade North Korea to change its behavior with concession after concession in the hopes of some diplomatic triumph. For Condoleezza Rice and her top envoy on North Korea, Chris Hill, “the agreement seemed to become the objective, and we ended up with a clear setback in our nonproliferation efforts.”

Cheney argues that Bush never lost sight of the overall objective—slowing the proliferation of nuclear technology—but he doesn’t seem to mean it. Even after the North Koreans were caught red-handed, Cheney writes, the president agreed to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terror and lifted some sanctions.

I was disappointed, and not just because I disagreed with the president. It was his call. But the process and the decision that followed had seemed so out of keeping with the clearheaded way I’d seen him make decisions in the past.

Still, Cheney refused to directly criticize the president on North Korea even as he left office. When I interviewed him two weeks before the inauguration of Barack Obama, I asked him about a glossy White House pamphlet that boasted the administration had “secured a commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear program.”

“Is that an accomplishment you celebrate?”

“I haven’t read the report,” said Cheney, smiling.

“I assure you I’m quoting it accurately.”

“I’m sure you are,” he responded. “I don’t have any doubt about that. I think I’m going to take a pass.”

I told him I wanted to ask the same question in a different way. Did he agree with those who believe that the administration’s policy on North Korea had been one of “preemptive capitulation”?

“Steve, you’ve put me in a difficult position here.” 

“That’s my job.”

“That is your job,” he agreed. But the vice president said he wouldn’t respond directly to my question: “I think the president has worked this one very hard, and properly so.” He conceded that the administration hadn’t achieved its objective on North Korea, but that is “primarily because the North Koreans have refused to keep the commitments they have made in connection with the negotiations that we’ve had.”

If Cheney’s influence diminished in the second term, it did not disappear altogether. No one in the Bush administration—including the president—was a stronger proponent for the surge in Iraq, and history will record his steadfast advocacy for the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq as one of his signature accomplishments. But telling the story of the surge—and, more broadly, of postwar Iraq—creates a problem for Cheney. It’s impossible to describe the need for the surge without acknowledging the failure of the strategy that made it necessary, and it’s impossible to acknowledge the failure of that strategy without criticizing the man responsible for it: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld and Cheney are best friends. They have been close since Rumsfeld first brought Cheney into the executive branch back in the Nixon administration—a more difficult task than it might seem. After Cheney had been kicked out of Yale (twice), he was arrested for drunk driving (twice) back in Wyoming. When the FBI did a background check, Cheney acknowledged the missteps, and Rumsfeld, after asking Cheney if he had admitted his brushes with the law, made sure they did not keep Cheney from working in the White House. “He stood by me,” Cheney writes in his chapter on the Nixon years, “and I have never forgotten that.”

Cheney acknowledges the difficulties in postwar Iraq while downplaying the criticism. “I tend to think that hindsight in this area is twenty-twenty,” he argues. “We had tremendously talented people working hard in Baghdad—military and civilian—to accomplish an exceedingly difficult task. They didn’t always get it right. And we didn’t always get it right in Washington.”

Cheney goes on to describe a meeting in 2006 in which Generals John Abizaid and George Casey gave a progress report on an ever more violent Iraq: “They were carrying out a strategy that defined success based on turnover of responsibility to the Iraqis” when it was becoming increasingly clear that Iraqis could not handle it. Cheney writes that he came to the meeting with a series of questions: “Is there more we could be doing to defeat the insurgency? Do we need more troops? Are the Iraqis convinced that we’ll see this through? What does it take to win?”

Violence had been escalating in Iraq for three years. Is it really the case that a former defense secretary, who writes that he had expressed concerns about Afghanistan after just three weeks of American boots on the ground, didn’t ask these questions until three years into Iraq?

Cheney doesn’t tell us that he had failed to ask these questions earlier; he just doesn’t acknowledge that he did. Eight months after the invasion, Cheney spoke by phone to L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator in Iraq, and according to Bremer’s notes from the call, Cheney asked: “What’s our strategy to win? My impression is that the Pentagon’s mindset is that the war’s over and they’re now in the ‘mopping-up’ phase. They fail to see we’re in a major battle against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.”

Cheney didn’t remember the call when I asked him about it, but members of his national security staff and others involved in Iraq decision-making say that his concerns about the military strategy came early. Cheney left that out. When I interviewed him shortly before he left the White House, I asked Cheney directly whether he was pushing for a change in strategy before the surge.

“Well, you’re putting me in a difficult position,” he said.

I pressed him.

“I’m going to pass on your question. I do have some things I want to say in that area, but I think I’ll save it for my book,” he joked.

In this case, what he left out of the book might tell us as much about Dick Cheney, the man, as what he included.

Stephen F. Hayes, senior writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (2007).