Rest assured of one thing: he was the only American vice president ever to travel regularly with "a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the back seat of his car. You could say that he took his weapons of mass destruction seriously, and perhaps even infer from Jane Mayer's account of his anxieties back in September 2001 that he had something of a paranoid view of a world he believed wanted to do him harm in a weapons-of-mass-destructive way.
It was in this mood that he and the president he served decided to show that world just who was who and leaped, post-9/11 -- not to put the matter too modestly -- to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. (At home, they were planning for a Pax Republicana coast to coast until hell froze over.) In their imaginations, and some of their official documents as well, they dreamed of reorganizing the whole planet in ways that would more than rival any imperial power since Rome went down amid mad emperors and barbarian invasions. In the fabulous future they didn't hesitate to document, no power or bloc of powers would be allowed to challenge the United States for years, decades, eons to come. And their means of doing this? The U.S. military, which the president took to calling "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." That high-tech force, romanticized and idolized by administration fundamentalists, turned out to be the only tool in their toolkit, all they believed was necessary to transform Earth into a first-class American protectorate.
Give credit to George W. Bush and his more-than-right-hand man, Dick Cheney, the vice president who essentially nominated himself: there's never been a duo like them in the White House. Cheney, in particular, was a geopolitical visionary, his planet-encompassing vision fueled by his experiences in the energy trade and by a Cold Warrior's urge to roll back ever further the remnants of the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. He was also, as Mark Danner illustrates, mad in his vision and desperately wrong. But again, give him and his president credit: before they were done mistaking military for economic power, they had punched a gaping hole through the heart of the Middle East and, as Arab League head Amr Moussa warned at the time, had driven directly through "the gates of hell" dreaming of a path strewn with "sweets and flowers" and lined with grateful Iraqis who would greet them as liberators on their way to Tehran.
Before they could complete their global damage, however, the adults were brought in, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. At his congressional nomination hearings in December 2006, Gates put the vice president, his ever-endangered heart still pounding, in his political grave by describing the particular nightmare that would ensue from any U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The signal was clear enough. If Dick Cheney couldn't pull the trigger on Iran, no one else would (despite much talk in the years to come about all "options" remaining on "the table"). In fact, 2007 should probably be considered the beginning of the Obama years, a time when top officials with no vision at all of how the planet should function raced like so many overworked firemen from the scene of one global blaze to another (many originally set by Cheney and Bush).
Today, Mark Danner reminds us, as he did in his remarkable three-part series at the New York Review of Books on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald ("stuff happens") Rumsfeld, that if the cast of characters from those first post-9/11 years is gone, we still live in the ruins they created and the special darkness they embraced. In an essay that focuses on Cheney's memoir, a movie about the former vice president, and a book by his surgeon, Danner takes us deep into that darkness. Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books, it's an honor to be able to post Danner's latest piece for the first time online. The start of a three-part series on Cheney, it will appear in that magazine's March 6th issue. Tom
In the Darkness of Dick Cheney
The Smile of Secret Power
By Mark Danner
[This essay appears in the March 6th issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.]
If you're a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
-- Dick Cheney, 2013
1. "We Ought to Take It Out"
In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. "They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley," he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.
"There's no population around it anyplace... You can't say it's to generate electricity, there's no power line coming out of it. It's just out there obviously for production of plutonium."
The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant -- with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: "Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out."
Launching an immediate surprise attack on Syria, Cheney tells us in his memoirs, would not only "make the region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with respect to nonproliferation." This was the heart of the Bush Doctrine: henceforth terrorists and the states harboring them would be treated as one and, as President Bush vowed before Congress in January 2002, "the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." It was according to this strategic thinking that the United States answered attacks on New York and Washington by a handful of terrorists not by a carefully circumscribed counterinsurgency aimed at al-Qaeda but by a worldwide "war on terror" that also targeted states -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- that formed part of a newly defined "axis of evil."1 According to those attending National Security Council meetings in the days after September 11,
"The primary impetus for invading Iraq... was to make an example of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States."2
And yet five years after the president had denounced the "axis of evil" before Congress, and four years after his administration had invaded and occupied Iraq in the declared aim of ridding Saddam's regime of its weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans had detonated their own nuclear weapon and the Syrians and Iranians, as the vice president tells us in his memoirs, were "both working to develop nuclear capability." What's more,