By: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
February 13, 2010 03:09 PM EST
Former Vice President Cheney will appear on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, and it’s a safe bet what he will say: President Barack Obama projects weakness to terrorists and puts American lives at risk.
It’s the kind of brutal charge — nuance-free and politically explosive — that has become a Cheney specialty since he left office 13 months ago.
Cheney’s broadsides on Afghanistan policy, detention and surveillance policies, and Obama’s general philosophy about the U.S. role in a dangerous world inevitably dominate the news. No other figure in Republican politics has equal ability to drive debate on national security, rally Obama critics and force the administration to respond. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden will be countering Cheney on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
But the backlashes to Cheney have become every bit as vicious as his own attacks. Some nonpartisan national security analysts have called Cheney’s critiques distorted and even demagogic. Some prominent liberal commentators have called them unpatriotic, and possibly mentally unbalanced. Even a conservative Republican senator respected on foreign policy issues recently called Cheney’s criticism of Obama unfair.
The former vice president’s success in driving the Obama debate has prompted a secondary debate of its own: Why does Cheney do it?
Cheney associates say he abandoned plans for a sedate post-Bush administration retirement of fly-fishing and memoir writing because he is genuinely concerned that Obama is a weak leader who is responding to political pressures in modifying war and terror policies that Cheney himself was instrumental in crafting.
Cheney believes his own words apply opposite pressures that can either force Obama to think twice or hold him accountable if he doesn’t.
“You’ve seen the national-security debate shift, both because of the facts and the specifics that he has been able to marshal and speak about, but also because he’s given strength and support to others who are speaking out,” said a source close to Cheney who declined to be named.
“You’ve seen the American people have a much better understanding of what the different policy choices are and were than they would have if he hadn’t been speaking out. It’s forced the Obama administration to be much more rigorous in defending its own policy decisions and choices,” this adviser added.
But Cheney’s decision to stay as pugilist in the political ring has a cost. The kind of elder-statesman aura that sometimes falls around high officials once out of office won’t soon be enjoyed by Cheney.
This may not matter much to a politician who seems indifferent to the indignation of editorial boards and relishes offending liberal pieties. His natural temperament is goaded by his influential adviser, daughter Liz Cheney, who in television appearances is even more combative than her father in taking on Obama.
But Cheney’s ability to influence policy — as opposed to influencing cable-news programming — may be dulled by his insensitivity to timing and penchant for rhetorical bombast, with such quotes as describing Obama as “a guy without much experience, who campaigned against much of what we put in place ... and who now travels around the world apologizing.”
There was a furious response from not only liberal commentators but also establishment foreign policy analysts in December, after Cheney weighed in shortly after the attempted suicide bombing of a Northwest Airlines jetliner with a statement that asserted: “We are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society.”
In fact, Obama said in his inaugural address, “Our nation is at war.” He has also doubled the Bush-Cheney troop commitment to Afghanistan.
“Listening to former Vice President Cheney attack President Obama's strategic failures in the war on terror feels a little surreal; even from Cheney's point of view, the Bush administration's record was at best a very mixed bag,” responded Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in POLITICO’S “Arena” forum.
Several weeks earlier, after Cheney accused Obama of “dithering” during his review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Sen. Dick Lugar, an Indiana Republican with major influence on foreign policy, told Bloomberg TV that Cheney was being “unfair.”
Another Republican, former Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, defended Obama’s approach to POLITICO and said, “Cheney was wrong — and outrageously so — to so cavalierly dismiss public opinion” in managing war policy when he was in power.
Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, was more succinct: “Have you, at long last, no shred of decency left? Oh, never mind. Silly question.”
In interviews for this article, some of Cheney’s harshest critics said the origins of his Obama criticism may be more psychological than political. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said in an e-mail to POLITICO that Cheney has been “shrill, totally unpatriotic and sounding more concerned with torture and interrogation than with results and intelligence.”
“I think he may believe that only his vision can save America, and thus anything, including lying to America, is justifiable,” Olbermann wrote. “This is, I believe, called ‘a Messiah Complex.’”
Andrew Sullivan, who writes “The Daily Dish” blog on The Atlantic.com, wrote in an e-mail for this story: “Cheney's unprecedentedly aggressive approach ... reflects his own knowledge that he has committed war crimes of a very grave sort, war crimes that at some point could lead to prosecution and will undoubtedly lead to historical infamy.”
“If that becomes the prevailing narrative — because it is true — he will go down in history as a man who betrayed the very core principles of Western civilization out of panic and then covered it up,” Sullivan continued. “So he has to change the subject and launch this kind of P.R. campaign to throw everyone off the scent. ... Cheney is cornered. He knows justice is coming, and he knows that one day the full truth will come out and there will be no hiding. Until then, he will fight and fight and break every taboo that respect for the Constitution and for civil discourse requires.”
Sullivan has been one of the leading voices criticizing the news media — and POLITICO specifically — for giving Cheney a platform for his rhetorical blasts in interviews without challenging his premises and also forcing him to answer for his own alleged misdeeds in office.
Critics say Cheney should not allowed to press Obama without being pressed to defend his own record. A November report from the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asserted that Osama bin Laden had been “cornered” and “within our grasp” at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001, but was allowed to escape when U.S. commandos’ “calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected.”
At the same time, Cheney mostly has refused to acknowledge mistakes or culpability, declaring on the day in May that he and Obama delivered back-to-back speeches: “For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history — not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them.”
Despite the calls from some quarters for the media to take away Cheney’s megaphone, it seems clear that the former vice president will attract coverage — and rightly so — for the indefinite future.
He remains a central force in politics; the co-architect of two wars and a series of anti-terror policies that have largely been retained by this administration.
The White House, attuned to Cheney’s appearance, countered by making Biden available from Vancouver, where he is leading the U.S. delegation during the opening weekend of the Winter Olympics. He’ll tape a pre-emptive interview Saturday with NBC’s David Gregory for “Meet the Press,” to air opposite “This Week.” Then Biden will go live Sunday at 10:30 a.m. ET with CBS’s Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” to rebut Cheney’s points and defend the current administration’s record.
Look for Biden to argue — by making the positive case for the current White House, without attacking his predecessor directly — that Cheney’s charges don’t square with the reality of the Obama administration’s actions, that Cheney has been unwilling to admit that the focus on Iraq diverted vital resources from the war in Afghanistan, that facts and experts rebut Cheney’s claims about national security and interrogation and that Cheney is wrong about the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The dueling appearances highlight one of the ironies of the Cheney offensive: Many liberals feel Obama has largely embraced the Bush approach to terrorism policy. But Cheney feels Obama is essentially dismantling his work. The truth is somewhere in between, but clearly not as bad as Cheney would have people think.
Obama still has not shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, or the domestic surveillance program or the program for trying some terrorists in military tribunals. He extended —not eliminated — the Patriot Act and reportedly has secretly used drones to assassinate more terrorists than the Bush administration did. He increased troops in Afghanistan and has not drawn down troops in Iraq any faster than Bush would have if he had another term in office.
In this light, it's hard to see the Cheney caricature of Obama as a weak accommodationist who wants to talk his way out of terror threats. At the same time, Obama has pulled back on what he sees as the most inexplicable overreaches of the Bush-Cheney years — the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (“torture,” to critics) and the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.
So is Cheney’s rhetoric in bounds?
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who is now president of The New School in New York City, said that despite his disagreements with what Cheney says, “I think it’s entirely appropriate, and I certainly think that he contributes to the public debate. At the same time, I very much appreciate the approach that former President [George W.] Bush has taken, which is to be very respectful, even though it seems like he’s constantly being criticized.”
Dana Perino, Bush’s last White House press secretary, said the vice president “packs a punch” whenever he speaks out and shouldn’t feel constrained.
“No one else is shy about commenting about us,” Perino said. “The fact that we have been very effective at pushing back is something to be commended.”
Cheney's critics are adamant the approach should only be condemned.