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Richard Cohen

Red Scare, Updated

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page A27

Let's play a political word-association game. You say "blue" and I say "red." You say "swift" and I say "boat." You say "Cheney" and I say "Welch" and you ask me what in the world do I mean. And I say that when Dick Cheney warned that the election of John Kerry would increase the risk of a terrorist attack, I immediately thought of Joseph Welch, the patrician Boston attorney who confronted Sen. Joseph McCarthy back in 1954 and asked, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" The answer in McCarthy's case was no. It is no different with Cheney.

Cheney made his remarks Tuesday in a campaign stop in Des Moines, where he elevated the election to a choice not between two men or two parties, but between life and death. "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney said. Somewhere, Joe McCarthy smiled.

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Cheney, of course, did not point out that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred on his and George Bush's watch. All of this is in the official record. Also in the record are the warnings of various government officials -- Richard Clarke, for instance -- that Osama bin Laden was almost certainly planning an attack against the United States. Similar warnings from outgoing Clinton administration officials such as Sandy Berger were ignored by an administration that smugly knew better. It was first going to work on missile defense -- the real threat, remember?

In a way, the Des Moines statement is just more Cheney. The vice president is the Chicken Little of the Bush administration, whose dire warnings of this or that never materialize. He insisted, for instance, that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program, both a scary prospect and reason enough for war. Trouble was, Iraq had dismantled that program, which, as even Bush might fathom, is not the same thing.

It was Cheney, too, who insisted against all evidence -- or, to be precise, in the absence of any -- that a substantive link existed between bin Laden and Hussein's regime. If you only knew what I knew, Cheney essentially said, but all the agencies of government that did know what Cheney knew concluded otherwise. No matter. Once again, Cheney simply said what was politically advantageous. If Massachusetts becomes a battleground state, look for Cheney to convert to Catholicism.

The problem with Cheney's assertion about terrorism is that it makes no sense. Nothing in John Kerry's record, and certainly nothing the senator has said recently, suggests he would be any less tough on terrorism than George Bush. There is ample evidence to suggest, however, that he would not have gone off half-cocked into Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan. Opening up a supposed second front has not made the United States any safer. Hussein is in jail, but bin Laden is not and terrorists are striking all over the world. Under the gallant leadership of President Bush, the Marines hit the wrong beach.

The other night on the Jim Lehrer "NewsHour," former secretary of state Madeleine Albright called Iraq a mess and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger said it wasn't -- and then proceeded to describe a mess. At the moment, the United States has lost more than 1,000 service members, and whole hunks of that country are under the control of one militia or another. The situation has deteriorated so much that when Kerry promised he would try to get U.S. troops out of the country within four years, neither Bush nor Cheney quibbled. Four years? But this was supposed to be a liberation. Did we somehow miss the parades, the inauguration of Ahmed Chalabi, Martha Stewart re-creating the hanging gardens of Babylon? (A hanging garden is a good thing.)

Sorry, Henry, Iraq is a mess. And Cheney is one of the chief architects of that mess -- pride of place after Bush himself. But rather than answer for what they have done, they both prefer to resort to odious scare tactics, an updated version of the old soft-on-communism charge. Even before McCarthy, this was standard stuff in politics. As Cheney knows, when you don't have any answers, it's best not to have any shame, either.

cohenr@washpost.com


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