EXCEPTIONAL: Why the World Needs a Powerful America
By Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney
Threshold Editions. 324 pp. $28.
It was a classic Washington split-screen moment.
On May 21, 2009, minutes apart and just a mile and a half away from each other, President Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney offered dueling visions of America’s war on terrorism — of Guantanamo and torture, of surveillance and civil liberties. Speaking at the National Archives, Obama decried the previous administration’s “hasty decisions” and said essential American values had been discarded “as luxuries that we could no longer afford.” Cheney, holding court at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute, defended “enhanced interrogations” as legal and valuable, and warned that “in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.”
I was in the second row at Cheney’s speech, and I recall the energy in the room as the former vice president approached the lectern. Only recently out of office, Cheney still mattered. He embodied a worldview that carried sway. In 2009, Obama v. Cheney was a heavyweight prizefight.
Six years later, Cheney is out with a new book on national security and is once again scheduled to deliver a speech at AEI, with Obama again as his foil. But it’s hard to muster the same excitement. It is far from clear that Cheney’s arguments, calcified in the intervening years, wield much influence anymore, even within his own party, or that they should. Rather than a slugfest, this feels like a swan song.
And it is a song he performs, in perfect Cheney pitch, with “Exceptional.” Co-written with his daughter Liz Cheney, the book is part history of America’s role in the world since World War II, part assault on Obama’s record on foreign and defense policy, and part relentlessly militaristic to-do list for the next commander in chief. “Our next president must be committed to restoring America’s power and strength,” the Cheneys write. “Our security and the survival of freedom depend on it.”
In the authors’ telling, America’s influence over world events has been almost entirely benevolent, as leaders from Roosevelt and Truman to Reagan and George W. Bush stared down tyrants and dispensed freedom and security. “We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history,” the Cheneys explain, “the greatest force for good the world has ever known.” From D-Day through the Cold War and into the age of terror, “security and freedom for millions of people around the globe have depended on America’s military, economic, political, and diplomatic might.”
Until 2009, that is. “President Obama has diminished American power and retreated from the field of battle, fueling rising threats against our nation,” the authors write. “He has pursued a foreign policy built on appeasing our adversaries, abandoning our allies, and apologizing for America.”
The Cheneys repeatedly accuse Obama and his administration of misleading the American public — particularly regarding the Iran nuclear deal and the Benghazi attack — subsuming foreign policy to domestic political considerations, underestimating the threat posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, and ceding global initiative and influence to Moscow, Tehran and Beijing. More fundamentally, they contend, Obama simply does not get America. “The touchstone of his ideology — that America is to blame and her power must be restrained — requires a willful blindness about what America has done in the world,” the Cheneys write. “It is fundamentally counterfactual.”
All histories are selective histories, and in this respect “Exceptional” does not disappoint. The Vietnam War, for example, receives perfunctory treatment, perhaps because it doesn’t fit the story line of unambiguous American goodness. “The objective of preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam was a worthy one,” the Cheneys write. “There were many errors in the way America pursued this objective, about which much has been written elsewhere.” The main error they raise is the one hawks always raise: that in Vietnam, America did not fight to win.
On the Iraq war, “Exceptional” is entirely Cheneyesque — undoubting, unyielding and ultimately unconvincing. “U.S. troops . . . were, in fact, greeted as liberators,” they write, a defense of Vice President Cheney’s prediction on the eve of the invasion. While acknowledging that “we now know” Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the authors argue that the Iraqi leader was still a threat to U.S. security, because Iraq was “the most likely nexus” between terrorists and the weapons they sought. And they emphasize all that America accomplished in Iraq, such as deposing a dictator and providing security for the people as they voted in their first free elections.
“Those who say the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake are essentially saying we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power,” they write. The Cheneys don’t question whether Americans would have supported the invasion solely because Iraq was a “likely nexus” for terrorism and because U.S. troops could bring freedom to a long-suffering people, rather than because of its supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction, affirmed by the vice president and so many other Bush administration officials.
The closest “Exceptional” comes to contrition concerns the execution of the war, not its rationale, but even then it stops short. “The war to liberate Iraq was indisputably difficult,” the authors write. “It included tragedy and challenges we did not foresee. Every war does, but these tragedies and challenges do not detract from the rightness of our cause.”
History is written by the victors, and also by those who convince themselves that they won.
The Iraq experience adds an extra hurdle of credibility for the Cheneys’ warnings about Iran and the nuclear accord the United States and other powers recently reached with that country. “The Obama agreement will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and more than likely, the first use of a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” they write. Obama’s successor must junk the deal, they argue — just one of many items a new president must get to right away.
Their list is a throwback. It features a massive military buildup, including new missile-defense systems, more nuclear weapons and a force prepared to wage war in multiple geographic locations simultaneously. The Cheneys also call for the restoration of National Security Agency’s surveillance authorities, the return of “enhanced” interrogation of terrorism suspects, the deployment of thousands of military “advisors” to battle the Islamic State and a halt to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They also advocate aggressive actions against rival nations, such as sending troops to NATO countries that border Russia, in order to “signal American determination.”
Otherwise, the authors write, militant Islam will spread across the globe; Iran and other countries will go nuclear; China will dominate Asia and target America; and Russia will overpower Europe, enslaving free nations and destroying NATO.
The Cheneys rarely grapple with counterarguments or inconvenient facts. They say that harsh interrogations “saved lives and prevented attacks” but ignore the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report, which after a five-year investigation concluded that such techniques did not work. (“Feinstein, Dianne” does not appear in the book’s index.) When they chastise Obama for setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, they forget that Bush did the same. They complain that President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech on the military-industrial complex has been “distorted” and selectively quoted by critics of the military, and then proceed to do the same with Obama’s remarks on American exceptionalism.
At a time when the Republican presidential candidates offer get-tough bromides and obsess over the Mexican border, a thoughtful and reasoned critique of Obama’s foreign policy is needed. But “Exceptional” does not provide it. It is heavy on self-justifications and conservative talking points, light on self-awareness. “One might ask why the administration worked so hard to ignore evidence and peddle a false narrative about what happened,” the Cheneys write regarding Benghazi. It is a question that might be asked of other administrations during other crises, too.
The former vice president has not endorsed anyone in the 2016 Republican field, and none of the candidates seems particularly eager to claim him as a foreign policy adviser. It’s probably just as well. When American exceptionalism is conflated with militarism and jingoism, it leaves little room for the traditions of reinvention and self-assessment that make America’s exceptional nature come alive.
America is exceptional. Dick Cheney is, too.
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