August 2008

Dick Cheney's Morality

by Jonathan Wallace

Dick Cheney may not be the most dangerous man to serve as vice president. But he is certainly the most powerful dangerous man to hold the job.

Through-out the Bush administration, Cheney has redefined the vice presidency, typically an irrelevant "fifth wheel" position, to act as a kind of "Merlin" to the president: consigliere, motivator, idea man, gatekeeper, advisor, bully and man in charge of finding the means to accomplish any goal. And who is willing to carry out any policy he favors by any means necessary.

While the history of the Bush administration (and of any other Presidential administration) is full of people reluctantly carrying out policies with which they radically disagree (for example, Christie Whitman, Colin Powell, probably even Ted Olsen), one very remarkable feature of Cheney's tenure is that he has been able to apply virtually all of his time and energy to championing what he believes in. This is of course unheard of for a Veep, who typically spends all of his time attending funerals and trivial state dinners, and is often given the chairmanship of some unimportant inter-agency group so that he can appear busy.

I have spent most of eight years believing the theory that Bush is a figurehead, a shadow president, while Cheney exercises real power. Some inside accounts of the administration deny this; there are claims that Bush accurately described himself as the "decider", and has even disagreed with Cheney on a few occasions. But a very nice metaphor quoted in a Washington Post series on the vice president says that Bush prefers a Reagan-style presidency, overseeing the ship of state from way up on the mast, while Cheney doesn't mind getting his hands dirty in the engine room.

A remarkable anecdote in the Post states that James Baker, when he assumed office as Chief of Staff in the Reagan administration in 1980, sought Dick Cheney's advice about how to do his job. Cheney advised him to protect the president by papering over every decision, seek consensus from the various players involved, and never to surprise the President or leave him exposed to the press and public opinion with an undocumentable "oh by the way" decision.

Since September 11,2001, Cheney has become the acknowledged master of the behind-the-scenes, undocumented decision which repeatedly has later blown up beneath the president like a land mine. Dick Cheney by-passed Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld to promulgate first the order exempting Al Qaeda detainees from the Geneva conventions and from the jurisdiction of American courts; implemented the use of military commissions, operating under extremely loose evidentiary rules, to try terrorists, reviving a now-disfavored precedent unused since some Nazi spies were railroaded to the electric chair in just six weeks after their capture in 1942; and most notoriously, reached out to various lawyer allies in other departments, including a subordinate of attorney general Rumsfeld without the latter's knowledge, to re-define torture as anything which kills the prisoner. Anything which does not kill the prisoner thus became legitimate. (In fairness to Cheney, the one approach explcitly rejected in these early deliberations was threatening to bury the prisoner alive--and presumably doing so.)

Cheney has said several times that he doesn't care what the public or press think of him; only history's verdict will count. I think history will view him as the Patron Saint of Waterboarding.

Wikipedia defines "waterboarding" as follows (footnotes omitted):

Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing a person on their back with the head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. In contrast to merely submerging the head face-forward, waterboarding almost immediately elicits the gag reflex. Although waterboarding does not always cause lasting physical damage, it carries the risks of extreme pain, damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, and death. The psychological effects on victims of waterboarding can last for years after the procedure.

And here is a famous 1968 photo of a North Vietnamese POW being water-boarded:

This practice was illegal in the U.S. military at the time, and the soldier who gave the order was ultimately court-martialed and discharged.

Are you really ready to believe this is not torture? More than anything else, Cheney's cynical re-definition of a clear English word makes me seriously worried that we are finally reaching the 1984/Humpty Dumpty state in which a word can mean its own opposite, or anything else--an era where spin is everything, facts nothing.

The Wikipedia article also mentions that:

In 1983 Texas sheriff James Parker and three of his deputies were convicted for conspiring to force confessions. The complaint said they "subject prisoners to a suffocating water torture ordeal in order to coerce confessions. This generally included the placement of a towel over the nose and mouth of the prisoner and the pouring of water in the towel until the prisoner began to move, jerk, or otherwise indicate that he was suffocating and/or drowning". The sheriff was sentenced to ten years in prison, and the deputies to four years.

I wonder how James Parker feels today, if he's still alive, about having served ten years' hard time for a practice now glorified by our vice president.

Dick Cheney on waterboarding, during an interview on radio station WDAY on October 24, 2006:

Hennen: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"
Cheney: "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Dick Cheney has been in the spotlight for a lot of other things: applying behind-the-scenes pressure at EPA to reverse a decision to protect fish rather than farmers, resulting in a massive fish-kill; short-cutting clean air laws for the dirtiest plants in America, resulting in the resignation of his own appointee, EPA adminstrator Christie Whitman; shooting a friend during a quail hunting expedition; protection of big oil and lack of interest in alternative energy. What all of these incidents have in common are the elements of secrecy, the cutting off of discourse, pressure applied through phone calls and messengers, and a lack of public accountability for process.

For example, there is a perfectly valid argument that farmers are more important than fish. The law contained a sort of "escape valve", in which a decision could be made to elevate the interests of humans over environmental protection due to an emergency. Dick Cheney chose not to go that route, which was too obvious, too public, and would expose the administration to direct pressure and criticism. Instead, he leaned on the supposedly independent scientists appointed to evaluate the situation on the ground to change the science and find the fish were in no danger. Dead coho salmon started washing up soon after. As an interesting sidelight to this decision, the death of the salmon further ensured the destruction of the local salmon fishing industry. In the end, we saw not the elevation of humans over animals but the elevation of a conservative wealthy constituency, the farmers, over a probably less conservative and wealthy one, the fishermen. Business as usual in the Bush administration.

What does Dick Cheney stand for? What does a still small voice tell him at 4 a.m.? There are, broadly speaking, two possibilities. One is, "I do these things because I can and because it pleases me." This is the philosophy of murderous, non-ideological dictators and of serial killers who are not clinically insane. The other possibility, which gives Cheney a little more credit for actually having a moral framework, reduces to a kind of American exceptionalism: "Waterboarding is all right to protect Americans against non-Americans." But given that he must rip up the United States constitution in order to make such a statement in the first place, it is a little hard to determine just what the state of being American means to Dick Cheney. What it means to me is living by a set of moral rules nicely embodied in the Constitution and particularly the bill of rights. If we tear these up, we are not Americans any more. To Dick Cheney, it doesn't matter. Whether he thinks of being American as being the chosen of God, or fashions some other rationalization that allows us to defend ourselves via torture and other horrific means, he is destroying what he claims to protect.