Alex Massie

George W Bush: Terrorist Appeaser?

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Well, according to Dick Cheney, George W Bush was

just as

almost as bad as your average America-hating euro-weenie or member of the Democratic Congressional caucus. Barton Gellman - whose sourcing is pretty good - reports that:

Cheney's disappointment with the former president surfaced recently in one of the informal conversations he is holding to discuss the book with authors, diplomats, policy experts and past colleagues. By habit, he listens more than he talks, but Cheney broke form when asked about his regrets.

"In the second term, he felt Bush was moving away from him," said a participant in the recent gathering, describing Cheney's reply. "He said Bush was shackled by the public reaction and the criticism he took. Bush was more malleable to that. The implication was that Bush had gone soft on him, or rather Bush had hardened against Cheney's advice. He'd showed an independence that Cheney didn't see coming. It was clear that Cheney's doctrine was cast-iron strength at all times -- never apologize, never explain -- and Bush moved toward the conciliatory."

The two men maintain respectful ties, speaking on the telephone now and then, though aides to both said they were never quite friends. But there is a sting in Cheney's critique, because he views concessions to public sentiment as moral weakness. After years of praising Bush as a man of resolve, Cheney now intimates that the former president turned out to be more like an ordinary politician in the end...

Cheney's imprint on law and policy, achieved during the first term at the peak of his influence, had faded considerably by the time he and Bush left office. Bush halted the waterboarding of accused terrorists, closed secret CIA prisons, sought congressional blessing for domestic surveillance, and reached out diplomatically to Iran and North Korea, which Cheney believed to be ripe for "regime change."

It's not too shocking that Cheney would want to defend himself, nor that he should have been disappointed by Bush's second term since it was, in some respects, an attempt to make up for the mistakes of Bush's first four years in office. But note too the sense, as relayed by this Cheney confidante at least, that Cheney was disappointed the President moved away from him. It's almost as if the Vice-President was horrified to discover that the President had ideas of his own. In this piece at least, Cheney actually endorses the caricature of a black-hatted Veep pulling the stings and manipulating a callow, incurious President.

Republicans used to claim that Cheney's lack of Presidential ambition was a good thing since it meant he had no axe to grind, no position to take that would advance his own political interests. Instead he would be the candid friend and the source of much sage advice, drawn from his decades spent in Washington.

And there was something to that idea. But it's also apparent that Cheney's lack of political ambition was also a weakness. It seems to have persuaded him, in the instances cited by Gellman at least, to ignore any and all political calculations as though they didn't matter and only the weak or the foolish would pay any attention to political realities. In that sense, Cheney was a deeply irresponsible Vice-President.

Torturing prisoners, illegal surveillance of American citizens, agitating for regime change in Tehran and Pyongyang while Iraq and Afghanistan remained in turmoil: these are not the policies of a man who gives a damn about public opinion. Indeed, I dare say that Cheney thinks the public soft too. Only he appreciates the true nature of the threat America faces. Only Cheney can be trusted to be tough enough to deal with it. And if that means cutting down a forest of laws to do it, then so be it.

It is hard to combine this view with the demands of liberal democracy. But since Cheney was quite content to suspend habeus corpus, doubtless he'd have been happy enough to abandon everything else too. This is war and war demands extraordinary powers, don't you know?

Freed from any kind of electoral or political reality, Cheney was able to rampage through Washington, doing all kinds of damage to almost every institution or office or agency he touched. That's the price you pay for Cheney's lack of personal political ambition. We often think of political ambition as something to be wary of - and rightly so - but Cheney demonstrates that the quiet lack of personal ambition can have disastrous consequences too, for it frees a man from having to be accountable for his actions, permitting him to justify anything and everything if it moves him an inch closer to achieving goals that he, and he alone, has set.

[Via Kevin Drum]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.