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Dr. Strangelove

Angler CoverBarton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), $27.95, 483 pp., Hardcover.

Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.

Dick Cheney was not among those who believed the names on the Republican presidential ticket in 2000 should have been inverted. He aspired to the vice-presidency, not the presidency; and, as he told former vice-president Dan Quayle, while in that office he did not intend to busy himself attending state funerals as has been typical of modern vice-presidents: he had other plans; substantive plans. Angler is the story of how Cheney aggregated and exercised power to accomplish his will within the Bush Administration. “Cheney’s most troubling quality was a sense of mission so acute that it drove him to seek power without limitation. His indifference to public opinion, an important constraint on most office holders, verged on contempt,” writes Barton Gellman.


Angler’s description of the interior workings of the Bush Administration will be uncomfortable reading for those who choose to maintain the view of government taught in civics classes. A tale of secrecy, trickery, deception, lies, coercion, intimidation, torture, and threats, all unbounded by morality and in the service of Cheney’s will, Angler emphasizes tactics and issues, without delving deeply into Cheney’s motivation, core beliefs, or, indeed, to whom, if anyone or anything other than himself, he owes allegiance.


“For the public, Cheney had become a punch line, an inverse Dan Quayle – ridiculed not for vacuity but for dark and all-too clever scheming,” writes Gellman. “That these were caricatures of both men did not diminish the impact.” If that indeed is a caricature of Cheney, Angler’s description of the first term of the Bush presidency reinforces it. President Bush was “decider” only when “he chose to be;” otherwise, Cheney had free reign. “There would be many reasons for Cheney’s dominance in the Bush administration, some of them subtle. One was as simple as could be. The vice president knew what he wanted. Unlike most of his rivals, and even the president he served, Cheney seldom indulged in ambivalence.”


Angler begins with a chilling vignette, reminiscent of Alfred Kinsey’s methodology, in which Cheney, in charge of George W. Bush’s search for a running mate, elicits confidential information from a potential vice-presidential nominee, only to secure the nomination for himself and later use that information to scuttle the man’s appointment to Bush’s cabinet. Indeed, with Bush’s blessing, Cheney was in charge of the transition, “the dominant force in the Bush administration to be.” Although “Cheney took care to defer to Bush, leaving the final yea or nay on each prospective nominee to the man at the top of the ticket[,] Bush ratified each choice.” Cheney’s reach extended beyond the Cabinet to second- and third-ranking officials, and “in the policy fields that Cheney cared about, he found places for allies even deeper in the bureaucracy[,] gently, by way of suggestions, not commands, to those who did the hiring.”


Dick CheneyFor his own staff, Cheney chose two men “possessed of far more experience and force of will than their counterparts on Bush’s staff, [who] would have outsized influence in the events to come.” David Addington, “a ferocious advocate of presidential authority,” was counsel to the vice-president and “Cheney’s enforcer in the bureaucracy.” I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who, while at Yale, “had studied political science under Paul Wolfowitz, then followed him on an ideological exodus from their liberal Jewish roots,” was Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser. Like Wolfowitz, for whom he had then worked at the Pentagon, Libby had dissented when George H.W. Bush ended the first Gulf War without ousting Saddam Hussein. Cheney also arranged for Libby to hold the title of assistant to the president, which gave Libby, and thus Cheney, the right to challenge speeches, legislation, and executive orders before they got to the president.


In addition to nominations and appointments, Cheney’s policy interests included war and peace, the economy, natural resources, and relations with Congress. Cheney appeared to fall in line behind Bush’s decisions, once made, but until Bush settled an argument, Cheney used every advantage he could muster to prevail; afterwards, he used every loophole he could manufacture or exploit. The descriptions of Cheney’s approach to war and peace are the most chilling parts of Angler. “Bush had given him the lead White House roles on both terrorism and intelligence. The vice-president took the hardest rhetorical line, harder than the president himself.”


Cheney authorized the Air Force to shoot down a civilian jetliner on September 11, 2001. “On what authority?” asks Gellman, who establishes painstakingly that, contrary to later statements of the president and vice-president, Cheney acted on his own initiative.


If Bush and Cheney simply lied, as substantially all the evidence but their own suggests, then a template for ‘this crusade, this war on terrorism’ was established from the moment it began. Again and again the two men would display a shared sense of danger, an instinct for the precedent-busting response, and a willingness to blur the line between discretion and subterfuge.

On September 11 and afterward, Cheney staked out decisions of great national moment without explicit authority from Bush. … He did not defy the commander in chief, but he certainly did not always wait for orders.


On September 11, Cheney summoned Addington to the bunker beneath the White House. What extraordinary powers would the president need for the impending war?, asked Cheney. Addington subsequently “requested OLC opinions on subjects calculated to elicit broad replies.” OLC, the Office of Legal Counsel, a Department of Justice office that issues opinions on questions of law that are then binding on executive agencies, describes itself on its web site as “serving as, in effect, outside counsel for the other agencies of the executive branch.” John Yoo, an academic on leave to work as a deputy at OLC, had made his name in academia by controversial writings on presidential power. At OLC, Yoo pushed these views


well beyond the bounds of accepted scholarship, even among those who shared his presidentialist bent. Yoo declared in the most expansive terms that the commander in chief need take no account of restrictions set by the coequal legislative and judicial branches.


Yoo’s declarations were often kept secret. “In a prolific run of opinions that fall and winter, Yoo claimed without limitation that the president could disregard laws and treaties prohibiting torture, war crimes, warrantless eavesdropping, and confinement without hearing. The breath of his language was stunning.” And it was just what Cheney and Addington desired. There was “near-hermetic secrecy” in which “not only the conduct of policy but even the law itself … was classified. The new legal framework was meant to be invisible, unreviewable – its very existence unknown by legislative or judicial actors who might push back.” Cheney and Addington kept Yoo’s secret “congenial analysis” hidden in their back pockets in case they were ever forced to legitimatize their actions publicly.


Cheney freed Bush to fight the ‘war on terror’ as he saw fit, driven by a shared belief that the government had to shake off old habits of self-restraint. With Bush’s consent, Cheney unleashed foreign intelligence agencies to spy at home. He gave them legal cover to conduct what he called ‘robust interrogation’ of captured enemies, using calculated cruelty to break their will. At Cheney’s initiative, the United States stripped terror suspects of long-established rights under domestic and international law, building a new legal edifice under exclusive White House ownership. Everything from capture and confinement to questioning, trial, and punishment would proceed by rules invented on the fly.


Bush and Cheney were not alone in wanting to shake off restraint. Neocon George Weigel writes that the contemporary Catholic belief that the just war theory includes a presumption against war is “based on as mistaken reading of Catholic intellectual history and a mistaken understanding of moral theology.” Weigel seems to favor compulsory war, at least where the war is launched by the United States or Israel. A delusional modern Athanasius, he declares the contemporary Church heterodox; he, almost alone, stands for orthodoxy, as he declares the Iraq Wars just. Is Bush’s preventive war approach just? The Church and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI say no. Weigel’s view, reduced to its essence, is that whenever the president decides to go to war, the war is just. But Cheney was not hampered by the Church’s just war theory; he had a more cold-blooded approach, telling Meet the Press that “it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objectives.”


The world’s last remaining superpower, Cheney believed, must not stand helpless against the dangers of a state-terror nexus. A defensive crouch was not an option. The United States could not defeat every potential foe, unseat every hostile government, but tackling one would send a powerful message to the rest.


Notes Gellman, “The question was where to begin.” Iran? Iraq? Libya? Syria? Sudan? North Korea? Cuba? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? Military and political interests militated against attacking many of these countries. Cheney was looking for an exemplar, not a formidable foe:


Cheney, in the end, did not press for war with Iraq because Saddam really topped the list of ‘grave and gathering threats,’ as he led the Bush administration in asserting. The United States would take him down because it could. The war would not preempt immediate danger, a more traditional ground for war, but prevent a danger that might emerge later – from Baghdad or anywhere else in the viewing audience.


Use any means at our disposal, basically. The United States would take him down because it could. What could be more cold-blooded than launching a war with its attendant death, destruction, misery, and suffering, merely because you can and you want to send a message to other countries?


Well, how about this? At Christmastime in 2003, the government was on edge, fearing “a spectacular attack around New Year’s Eve,” possibly nuclear terrorism. Cheney decided, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s support, to inform Iran that the United States would respond to such an attack by using nuclear weapons against Iran, even though, Gellman notes, there was “little or no indication that the plot, if plot there was, had support from the Islamic republic.”     Gellman summarizes the situation very succinctly:


Iran might be involved, might know something. With stakes this high, there was no time to wait for proof. This was a dark-side moment: motivate your enemy with a stick. Iran needed every incentive to find and stop the coming attack, just in case it could.


As one participant at the meeting where Cheney made the decision to threaten Iran told Gellman:


These are ruthless men, and they were completely credible in the role of making ruthless threats, and that was exactly what they believed the situation required. It’s not every day you make a threat to obliterate a country when you have no evidence at all. They had no idea whether Iran in fact had any role.


Angler’s chilling depiction of Cheney’s power and amorality is all the more striking because Gellman is not unsympathetic to Cheney or his methods. “Cheney served his county with devotion, at some cost to himself,” he writes. Indeed, Gellman ultimately endorses Cheney’s utilitarianism:


The Bush-Cheney strategy after September 11, with its claims of White House supremacy and its sharp tilt from civil liberty to state command, estranged even proponents of a unitary executive and a strong national security state. … Today cannot speak for tomorrow, and Cheney may turn out to be right that the pendulum will swing back. Nothing is likelier to bring that about than Cheney’s worst nightmare made flesh. If Nexus comes, loosing a plague or igniting a mushroom cloud, posterity may decide we should have stayed the vice president’s course.


A mushroom cloud, though, was not Cheney’s worst nightmare: we should be thankful that a mushroom cloud did not appear over Iran at Cheney’s instigation. But the publicly expressed willingness of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of State, to “totally obliterate” Iran suggests that the danger did not end with the recent change of administrations.CW 

James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.

This review was published in the May 2009 issue of Culture Wars.

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