It was just like the good old days.
Scooter Libby was in the front row. Paul Wolfowitz was in the second. And on the stage was Dick Cheney, beating the drums of war.
“The situation is dire, and defeating these terrorists will require immediate, sustained, simultaneous action across multiple fronts,” the former vice president proclaimed in a pre-buttal to President Obama’s prime-time speech on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“We should immediately hit them in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers and lines of communication wherever we find them,” Cheney told the audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“We are at war,” he said, and “we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win.” This means “we should halt the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan,” that we should “take military action if necessary” in Iran, and give “full backing and support” of those fighting the Muslim Brotherhood.
In summary: War, war and more war.
Cheney, five years out of office and two years after a heart transplant, looked and acted like his old self: Back to his former chunkiness, he flashed his crooked grin — and dismissed any information contrary to his martial thesis. AEI’s Marc Thiessen, the moderator, pointed out a report by The Post’s Robert Costa about “young and dovish” House Republicans who disagreed with Cheney’s position when he spoke to the caucus Tuesday. “Don’t we have to convince a lot of people in our party first?” Thiessen asked.
Cheney at first accepted the premise, but then reconsidered. “I’m sure there were probably a few in the audience who disagreed,” the former vice president said. “I think The Washington Post found two of them.”
There is agreement across the political spectrum on some of what Cheney said: that Obama has been disengaged and too hesitant to use military power. Even as he announced an expanded campaign against the Islamic State on Wednesday night, Obama reminded Americans that combat in Afghanistan will end this year, that 140,000 troops are home from Iraq and that “we will not get dragged into another ground war” there.
But Cheney is a singularly flawed critic, because the alternative he offers is war everywhere and always — and though there is support for taking on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there is no appetite in the country, or even in the GOP, for Cheney’s alternative extreme. As if to underscore that point, Jim Wallis, an evangelical with a pacifist bent who called the Iraq war a “war based on lies,” was speaking in an adjoining conference room at the conservative think tank while Cheney gave his address — and the applause could be heard in the room where Cheney was speaking.
This was Cheney’s second head-to-head speech with the sitting president, following a May 2009 duel in which Cheney furiously opposed Obama’s counterterrorism policies, accusing him of “recklessness cloaked in righteousness” and using the word “attack” 19 times.
Cheney One-Note delivered much the same Be Very Afraid speech: “Al-Qaeda is not diminished, nor is the tide of war receding . . . a doubling of jihadist fighters and a tripling of attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates . . . a defense secretary in a serious state of alarm. ‘The world,’ as Secretary Hagel said a few weeks ago, ‘is exploding all over.’ ”
Actually, the “world is exploding” line was part of a question Chuck Hagel said he’s often asked — but accuracy has never been a priority for Cheney. His priority Wednesday was to tell Americans that Obama has put their safety in jeopardy.
Cheney said the Obama administration “failed utterly” to keep American security strong.
“He has demonstrated his own distrust for American power as a force for good in the world,” Cheney growled, drawing a connection “between a disengaged president and some very volatile situations abroad.” Cheney, saying the Obama administration “failed utterly” to keep American security strong at home, is making “opportunity for our adversaries” with his “stern declarations of inaction.”
Cheney’s 20-minute speech, carefully read from his prepared text, had an I-told-you-so tone. He mockingly said it was “nice to hear” Obama’s recent remark that the post-9/11 security apparatus keeps us safe, “especially from someone who used to speak so disparagingly about the steps we took.”
Of course, it could be argued that the spread of jihadist movements has less to do with Obama than with destabilization caused by the Bush-Cheney wars. But Cheney, so expert on Obama’s failings, remains blind to his own. “A policy of nonintervention can be just as dogmatic as its opposite,” he said, “and this president has seemed at times only more sure of himself as he is disproved by events.”
A sense of self-awareness would have led Cheney to drop that line.