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Dick Cheney, Asymmetric Threat

3:27 PM, May 16, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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When the Obama White House authorized the release of the so-called torture memos, the Washington Post report noted that the release was, at least in part, a response to criticism from the former VP, Dick Cheney:

A source familiar with White House views said Obama's advisers are further convinced that letting the public know exactly what the past administration sanctioned will undermine what they see as former vice president Richard B. Cheney's effort to "box Obama in" by claiming that the executive order heightened the risk of a terrorist attack.

For weeks now Democrats -- particularly the DNC -- have been embracing Cheney's high-profile attacks and pointing to his low public approval numbers as evidence that the strategy would backfire. Left-wing blogs happily echoed the party's message and amplified every statement Cheney made on the assumption that Cheney's support for a policy would be toxic, and public support for that position would necessarily erode.

Well, it didn't happen like that. Cheney had boxed Obama in, and the aggressive response from Democrats inside the administration and out has only made the box tighter. Even now, Cheney's unapologetic and strident defense of the Bush administration's interrogation tactics is driving the left to ever more preposterous arguments not against torture, but in defense of the very terrorists subjected to those tactics. Andrew Sullivan writes today that the "Bush-Cheney administration presided over the worst attack on US soil in history and failed to capture or bring to justice any of its perpetrators." Is it possible that Sullivan has become so deluded as to believe that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whose rough treatment Sullivan has obsessed on for months now, is a victim and not a perpetrator, indeed the mastermind, of that horrible attack?

Some liberals are starting to catch on. Mike Madden describes today how Cheney set the torture trap and snared not just Obama but also the once untouchable Speaker of the House. Madden perhaps gives Cheney too much credit, but at least he's dispensed with the notion that Cheney is somehow dragging the Republican party down. It's Democrats who are getting tripped up as they try and fend off his attacks.

Pelosi has beaten a hasty retreat from her 24 hour war with the CIA. She now wants to "move forward," which echoes President Obama's own language whenever the left tries to push him towards some kind of investigation or truth commission. The White House refused to release photos that the left believes would have further demonstrated the abuses of the Bush administration. It's hard to imagine that the intense backlash to the release of the memos didn't play some part in that decision. And now the White House is moving to revive military commissions and indefinite detention. It's an acknowledgment that the Bush-Cheney way of war is not only legitimate, it's inescapable.

Things might have played out very differently if Cheney had kept quiet, but the Democrats were all screaming 'bring it on.' It turns out Cheney is an asymmetric threat they were unprepared for and for which they still have no counter. Despite his low public approval numbers, he's jammed up a popular president and a powerful speaker with little help from the party or the press. He is, as the boss writes in this week's editorial, the most potent weapon Republicans have right now.