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BOOKS-US: Dick Cheney, Master Bureaucrat

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Dec 26 2008 (IPS) - While lazier caricatures have always cast Vice-President Dick Cheney as the puppet-master pulling George W. Bush’s strings, it is the image of Cheney as master bureaucrat that provides the real key to understanding his power.

Given Bush’s well-known disinterest in details and self-image as “the decider”, exercising power under Bush has been less a matter of whispering in the president’s ear than of framing debates and regulating the flow of information shaping his decisions. In ‘Angler: The Cheney Vice-Presidency’, Barton Gellman provides a most thorough account of how Cheney was able to exploit the processes of government to implement his agenda in the early years of the Bush presidency.

Seemingly trivial details – that all emails from the National Security Council (NSC) were blind-carbon-copied to the Office of the Vice President (OVP), for instance, but not vice versa – come to be highly significant in Gellman’s account.

Much of the drama in Angler comes from watching the OVP and its allies in Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defence outmanoeuvre and marginalise their rivals. (One minor flaw with the book is that Gellman’s understandable focus on Cheney may lead him to diminish the role of Rumsfeld; it may be more accurate to speak of a Cheney-Rumsfeld axis driving policy in Bush’s first term.)

Cheney and Rumsfeld did not lose many debates in these years – and even when they did, they frequently managed to slip their preferred policy in through the back door after their antagonists had declared victory and shifted their attention elsewhere.

Cheney was instrumental in one of the most neglected aspects of the Bush Administration: the thorough re-staffing of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees far beyond the traditional extent of the spoils system, thereby reshaping government policy at the ground level and largely out of the public eye. By spearheading the administration’s transition team in 2000, Cheney was able to fill out its ranks from top to bottom, and Gellman documents how influential this was in shaping domestic policy, particularly regarding energy, taxes, and the environment.

Still, it was on national security issues that Cheney’s influence was greatest, and it is here that Gellman has unearthed the most new information. His biggest scoop – first revealed last year in a Washington Post series co- authored with Jo Becker – concerns the National Security Agency’s warrant- less wiretapping programme, which had been created by Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington.

It has been known for several years that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief-of-staff Andy Card had shown up at a gravely ill John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in March 2004 to try to extract a signature re- authorising the programme after the Justice Department had declared it illegal.

But Gellman provides the story’s coda: lacking legal authorisation for the program, Addington nonetheless wrote up a presidential directive renewing it – what Gellman calls “the nearest thing to a claim of unlimited power ever made by an American president” – which Bush, apparently unaware of the entire dispute, duly signed.

Only when it became clear that over twenty administration officials were within hours of quitting, including the attorney general and FBI director, did Bush reverse course and overrule Cheney. This rare defeat may have helped turn Bush against his vice-president.

Cheney’s imprint on detainee treatment was equally great. The initial 2001 order creating Pentagon military commissions came from the OVP, bypassing then Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. And it was Addington who apparently wrote the notorious 2002 memo – that went out under the name of Alberto Gonzales – declaring the Geneva Conventions “quaint”. Gellman also provides new details about Cheney’s role in propagating false intelligence during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Cheney has from the beginning served as the most aggressive hawk among the top administration leadership. His public pronouncements on the Iraq war have often gone farther than Bush himself was willing to, and in recent years he has led the hardliners pushing for confrontation with Iran and North Korea. Because of this, he is often viewed as a close ally or even a part of the administration’s neoconservative faction.

The supposed change in Cheney’s views wrought by the 9/11 attacks has been among the most-discussed aspects of the vice-presidency. In the popular mind, the sensible realist of the 1990s, cautious of grand geopolitical ambitions, turned in a matter of hours into a paranoid extremist aiming to remake the world in America’s image by force of arms.

Gellman does not delve much into Cheney’s career prior to 2000, one place where the book could have been filled out, but he does argue for a substantial degree of continuity in Cheney’s views. This is probably wise, for much analysis on Cheney has been handicapped by an obsession with finding smoking guns and hidden causes.

Since 2003, when the failure to find WMD turned what had been a fairly narrow argument over American national security into an abstract and ultimately shallow debate over the potential for universal democracy, it has been hard to remember that the initial case for war was couched in a way that proved deeply attractive for many self-professed hard-nosed realists (not to mention many self-professed liberal humanitarians). Although Cheney’s rationale for war was less about inspiring the Arab world with democratic ideals and more about cowing it with overwhelming firepower, he found the Iraq war equally congenial to his goals.

Similarly, the debate over whether Cheney is “really” a neoconservative is a distraction from the larger point, which is that in the years since 9/11 he and the neoconservatives have been able to unite, with few real disagreements, over the shared goals of an aggressively nationalist foreign policy, a disdain for diplomacy, and an utterly unfettered executive power in time of war.

In Bush’s second term, and particularly since the departure of Rumsfeld in 2006, Cheney has been an increasingly marginalised figure in an administration dominated by Rice and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. Gellman casts this as a story of hubris and nemesis, of overreach and reaction, and there is something to be said for this view. A common criticism of Cheney and Addington is that they were tactically brilliant but strategically short sighted – that by fighting every bureaucratic battle to the utmost in their quest for unfettered executive power, they triggered a backlash that lost them the war.

Nevertheless, Cheney’s legacy may be more ambiguous than this neat moral tale would suggest. Although the incoming Obama administration may scale back many of Cheney’s gains, the new president inherits a country whose most important issues (Iraq, Afghanistan, the economic crisis) have been handed to him by the Bush team. And on some issues – for instance, executive power – it remains to be seen whether Obama even wants to dismantle the machinery that Cheney and Addington have built for him.

From the vantage point of late 2008, Cheney appears to have paved the way for an Obama presidency and a progressive ascendancy. But a few more years may change our assessment of the vice-president’s legacy as drastically as it has changed since the high-water mark of his power four years ago.

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