The Cheney Offense

According to John Bolton, the conservative magazine Human Events chose Dick Cheney as its "conservative of the year" because of his "persuasive positions on substantive policy matters." In fact, Cheney was chosen for his ability to effectively manipulate American fear to defend the lawlessness of the prior administration. In a year when the GOP has tried to ride a wave of understandable but wrongheaded populist anger and anxiety over rising deficits, it chose as its figurehead a conservative who thinks deficits don't matter and whose crowning achievement is making torture a central part of the Republican platform.

Over the past year, the press has delighted in pitting President Barack Obama and Dick Cheney against one another. Events like their dueling national security speeches in May at the National Archives and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively, seemed to provide a chance to contrast the current administration and the previous one. Jon Meacham of Newsweek argued Cheney should run for president because a contest between Cheney and Obama "would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions." In fact, the heated tone of Cheney's criticisms masks the substantial overlap between the prior administration and this one when it comes to national security.

The Obama administration's national security policies differ in substance from those of the Bush administration's second term mostly at the margins. Like the Bush administration, Obama has chosen to preserve a "hybrid legal system" for trying suspected terrorists that will utilize civilian courts for "slam-dunk" cases and revised military commissions for those in which the evidence is less than certain. While campaigning as a civil libertarian, Obama has reneged on his promises to reform FISA and the PATRIOT Act, using congressional Republicans to block civil-liberties protections from being added to the proposed renewal bills.

The administration has expanded the drone war in Pakistan, prompting the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings to wonder aloud if the attacks might be war crimes. It has maintained the Bush-era FBI guidelines on racial profiling and surveillance that Muslim leaders say are alienating American Muslims. Despite boasting of a new era of transparency, the president signed into law a bill giving the defense secretary the ability to suppress photos depicting detainee abuse on the grounds that it might harm the U.S. reputation abroad, effectively giving the government veto power over disclosing its own illegal behavior.

The administration has invoked the state-secrets doctrine as frequently and eagerly as its predecessor, a policy that is having a profound effect on the ability of civil-liberties groups to acquire a "binding definitive determination" from the courts that will outlaw U.S. mistreatment of detainees once and for all. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU put it, while "the Bush administration constructed a legal framework for torture, the Obama administration is constructing a legal framework for impunity."

While Obama deserves credit for his attempts to close Guantanamo, this isn't a tremendous departure from the previous administration. Even President Bush said the prison should be closed. Moreover, as long as the Obama administration preserves Bush-era policies like indefinite detention without charge for those captured outside the battlefield, Gitmo's closure is mostly symbolic. Cheney's criticism of a civilian trial for Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and the alleged 9/11 conspirators on the grounds that it would give them a "platform" is plainly disingenuous. The Bush administration tried terrorists like Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid in federal court and then imprisoned them on American soil. The most significant difference between the two administrations is the unequivocal rejection of torture as American policy. To suggest that Cheney is defending Bush-era "national security policy" is euphemism. He is defending torture.

Cheney's reasons for doing so seem to have less to do with concrete evidence and more with personal pride -- and perhaps an attempt to shield himself from accountability. "I thought it was just plain wrong not to stand up and defend [the CIA] as well as to defend what we'd done," Cheney told Human Events. "And it didn't look to me like anybody was going to do it if I didn't do it. And I was perfectly happy to do it." Cheney describes the Iran-Contra scandal as "influencing" his decision to come forward -- he understood that public opinion could act as a shield against legal accountability for his role in developing the Bush administration's torture regime. This is why Cheney is opposed to a civilian trial for KSM -- not because he fears the alleged 9/11 mastermind proselytizing from the courtroom, but because it will put a spotlight on Bush-era lawlessness. Not that Cheney has much to fear from the Obama administration, which is focused on "looking forward" rather than holding any of the architects of the previous administration's torture policy accountable.

Liberals seem, on the surface, pleased with Cheney's re-emergence -- but they shouldn't be. Cheney isn't running for office, and his low favorability may only enhance his ability to scare the pants off people. Since 2007, support for torture has increased, not decreased. The president also faced a drop in poll ratings on national security issues that the were likely due in part to Cheney's assault. With the departure of officials like White House Counsel Greg Craig, who was tasked with closing Guantanamo, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Phil Carter, who had been a prominent critic of the Bush-era human-rights abuses, the administration's short-lived stint as the hope of civil libertarians and human-rights activists may have finally come to an end.

Cheney's outbursts freed the GOP to embrace torture fully and completely. While Bush was still in power, Republicans struggled to walk the tightrope between Bush's declaration that the United States "does not torture" and the basic reality that it did. Even the Weekly Standard, now a bastion of pro-torture conservatism, once condemned the abuses at Abu Ghraib and demanded accountability. Now that Bush is gone, there is no need for equivocation. As Illinois House Republican Aaron Shock told MSNBC last week, "I don't believe that we should limit waterboarding -- or, quite frankly, any other alternative torture technique -- if it means saving Americans' lives."

However, torture is a boon for the very extremists Cheney warns are at America's throat -- Gen. David Petraeus has warned that torture and Guantanamo Bay have been "used by the enemy against us." None of this is of as much significance to the GOP as giving the Obama administration a bloody nose on national security issues -- or for Cheney, defending his record as vice president. The GOP is simply pro-torture, legal impediments and the potential consequences for American civilians and servicemen captured abroad be damned.

The GOP has regressed considerably from the days when conservative champion Ronald Reagan signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1988. Twenty years later, Human Events, a publication that Reagan once praised as a "powerful voice of freedom," chose a torture apologist as its "conservative of the year." The damage done by having one party in a two-party system embrace human-rights violations as a central plank of its platform is immeasurable. If only Obama actually represented the kind of contrast from the past eight years Cheney seems to think he does.

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