Home/Articles/American Richelieu

American Richelieu

With the publication of this piece by Georgie Anne Geyer, we respectfully tip our hats to Time magazine’s tradition of selecting a figure who, for good or ill, over the past year has had the most dramatic impact on changing the shape of the world in which we live. Washington’s putting into practice a new strategic doctrine of pre-emptive war marks a major change in national and world history. In our view, it is a turn that could not have been accomplished without Vice President Cheney. From this magazine’s inception, we have argued that this doctrine is contrary to America’s best traditions and vital national interests. But its importance cannot be denied.—The Editors

If the George W. Bush administration had turned out to be anything resembling a traditional American administration, Dick Cheney would not be our Man of the Year. He would be an important vice president, no doubt about it, for the man has the many talents of that special political species, the veteran American politician from that vast American West who seems always to be leaning up against the wall in the background, watching everyone but saying little. But he would still be essentially the President-in-waiting, too smart to look too expectant and too prescient to look relaxed.

Dick Cheney can also exhibit a good sense of humor, as one day last spring when he was speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations at the Ritz-Carlton. He had just disappeared in one of his “undisclosed locations” acts, and so I got up and asked, tongue in cheek, “There’s a certain level of speculation, in Washington, sir—not necessarily that I subscribe to—but that you have been James Bondized. We don’t know where you are. We don’t know what you’re doing. I’d just like to ask you, are you enjoying this, and has this changed your personality? Can you give us any insights?”

The vice president grew more obviously amused as the question progressed, and then he answered, to the delight of the audience, “I’m just sitting here thinking about the analogy to James Bond.” He paused. “There are certain features of his lifestyle that I’ve not been able to avail myself of,” he summed up, “to put it in those terms—although I am hopeful.”

But the truth behind the importance of Dick Cheney’s ascension to the post of the most important vice president in American history—some say the most influential man in America—lies in the unique form of this Bush government. Ingrown, secretive, run by several handfuls of men and women who were able to take over the key positions in the Bush administration without the president really knowing who they all were and what they represented, this administration is most like a royal court. In the words of retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who has served in the Pentagon’s Undersecretariat for Policy, it is a system characterized by cross-agency cliques, the functional isolation of the professional corps, and groupthink.

In this system, George W. most resembles the many French dauphins come suddenly to the throne—the young, inexperienced prince, with a defense chief who has definite Napoleonic tendencies, and a flowing group of courtiers with their own agendas and loyalties, some to foreign countries and some to secret societies outside the realm. Within this court, Dick Cheney has become George Bush’s Cardinal Richelieu.In an administration that whispers instead of talks, and where the dauphin proudly does not read Le Monde, Dick Cheney is the man who whispers first—and usually, last—in the president’s ear. It is he who imposes an iron secrecy on the court and he who says, months before the president agrees, that, yes, surely he will run again! It is he who stands at the juncture of all the colliding egos and the catapulting interests, he who weighs and balances them, he who is the rock around which all the waves collide and flow. It is he whose office (“Call Scooter. Check it with Scooter,” they repeat hypnotically at the Pentagon, talking about his top aide, Lewis Libby) is the center of the Iraq-war effort, and it is he, not the president, who disappears when there is a crisis, for the safety of the republic. His staff is huge—upwards of 60 men and women devoted to him as in a cult—and tends not to complement the National Security Council (NSC) or the Pentagon but to replicate their functions, as in a court.

It was Dick Cheney, in those months of the campaign in Texas before “W” won the election, who, as head of the Bush selection committee, brought all his people into the court. Back then, most thought he was a “moderate Republican,” largely because he was better mannered than the Gingrich types; but the real non-mystery behind the “mystery” behind Dick Cheney (“What happened to him? Why did he change? How did he get so hard-line?”) is that he was always exactly the same man—he was only misperceived.You do remember Cardinal Richelieu? It was the time of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th century and the era of a weak king, Louis XIII. In 1585, Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duke de Richelieu, was born to a minor noble family and became a priest, a bishop, a cardinal, then France’s Secretary of State for foreign affairs in 1616, and, finally, the prime minister of France in 1624. He would go down in history as a man obsessed with bringing order to France under royal authority, and he believed in the divine right of the king and the obedience of the people. Yet, even as he believed in the “light of natural reason,” still he remained always the pessimist with regard to human nature and believed fully that the ends justify the means. Horribly overspending for France on the wars he fostered with Spain and the Huguenots, the Encyclopedia Britannica duly states that he “committed war expenditure with little regard for the difficulties of raising revenue and he was given to economic improvisation that was often unsound.” In the end, he was a mystic who died believing only in the grandeur of his France.

Dick Cheney had seemed an elder statesman of the Republican Party before George W. came to power. He appeared to be a well-behaved moderate who impressed his Democratic colleagues with his courtesy and his sanity, which can now actually be seen as handmaidens of his bent toward secrecy. But when one looks back into history, Vice President Cheney was always the odd man out in the first Bush administration. It was he who, from his home as defense chief in the Pentagon, dissented constantly on the Soviet Union, calling for a more confrontational positioning. It was he who argued, although not often publicly, for a grouping of democracies as the only way for the U.S. to get along in the world. It was he who did not want to recognize Nelson Mandela in South Africa and, of course, he who put out in 1992 an extraordinary paper on American power, severely embarrassing President Bush-41.

Most importantly in today’s terms—in terms of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the future of America—it was Dick Cheney who brought all the neocon hard-liner Cold Warriors into the Bush administration from the time he went to Texas to assist Governor Bush. This should have been no surprise. The Paul Wolfowitzes, the Richard Perles, the Lewis Libbys, the Douglas Feiths, the John Boltons were all on his teams, in the Pentagon, at the American Enterprise Institute, and now in “his” administration. Many worked together in the Project for a New American Century, with its 1998 letter to President Clinton urging him to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Here one finds the secret: Cheney has not changed at all. He was the outsider in the first Bush administration, and today he has the same ideas, only more so. He is the hard-line Hobbesian pessimist in whose blood runs the Wyoming strain, not of the open and free West, but of the suspicious militiaman eyeing the foreigner and his “black helicopters.”

It is hardly too much to say that without Dick Cheney as vice president, George W. Bush would not have set out after 9/11 to transform the Middle East in the name of pre-emptive unilateralism, taking on the whole world in the process. Cheney’s name repeatedly shows up in papers, reports, and propositions that would not seem to suit his rational and seemingly modest appearances on the political stage in earlier administrations.Look first at the paper, disregarded by most in the press—if they knew of it at all—as an aberration at the time and then, tellingly, quelled by a severely embarrassed President George H.W. Bush in 1992. This Defense Planning Guidance issued from the Cheney Pentagon just after the Soviet Union collapsed, when one might reasonably have expected some optimism, is pessimistic and hubristic. It offers, said the New Republic, “[A] vision of unbridled U.S. dominance and proposed democratization as the only true guarantor of U.S. security.” In Russia, there was “the possibility that democracy will fail”; in India, “hegemonic aspiration”; in Communist Asia, there were only “fundamental values, governance and policies decidedly at variance with our own.” The United States, therefore, must see that no rival arose, not even any grouping of rivals. It would be a unipolar world, with pre-emption only a step away.

The first President Bush was horrified, and the document was revised, but Paul Wolfowitz’s planning staff did not let go: the ideas were recycled into a Regional Defense Strategy and, eventually, into the very basis of the next President Bush’s foreign policy, as now Vice President Dick Cheney brought in that staff: Stephen Hadley, Lewis Libby, William Luti, John Bolton, and the rest. The group that had been around him in the ’90s and even in the ’80s was now together in the idea of democratizing the Arab world at the same time that there was a deep cynicism about the Arabs. (“The only thing that Islam understands is force,” is a constantly repeated staple among the neocons.)

Democratizing the Arab world also fulfilled the goals of the many neocons who had worked for years in dedication to Ariel Sharon’s “Greater Israel,” especially Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams. And here one comes to still another paper, prepared in 1996 by many of these American Likudniks for aspiring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would successfully kill the Oslo Accords just as he declared. That paper called clearly for an invasion of Iraq and for the “reconfiguration” of the Middle East.

In the old political days, a more traditional administration would have had its open lobbies and more open special-interest gyrations. There would have been arguments over policy and press interviews with the president, vice president, and others. Not in this administration. The positions on the Middle East, whether in the White House or the Pentagon, were filled early on by neocons, and mainstream American officials complain bitterly that they have cut out everyone who does not share their ideology. Meanwhile, the president has self-isolated: he proudly announces he does not read newspapers because he wants his news straight—from his staff, while the vice president occasionally hides from al-Qaeda at “undisclosed locations.”

The day before the State of the Union address in February 2003, a very few, very loyal columnists were called to the White House to see the president. This was already nearly unheard-of. But when they got there, the president briefed them but only to be quoted as a “senior administration official.” In newspaper manners, this is so bizarre as to be almost incredible. Once again, what you find is the mysterious, masqueraded posture of a court; one can almost sense the Masons hovering in the background while the Russian tsars shudder at such ideas of change and the Hapsburg heir is assassinated in Sarajevo by the Serbian “Black Hand.”

If, of course, 9/11 had never happened, Dick Cheney would not have become such a powerful vice president; nor would he have become—something we know is important to him—our “Man of the Year.” But once it happened, he had his historic team in place, and in the very first days after the disaster, he was the insistent voice criticizing American intelligence before 9/11, setting up new intelligence groupings outside the ring (going to the CIA himself to demand intelligence that fit the neocons’ ideas and approving the Office of Special Plans in the civilian Pentagon to funnel special intelligence up to his office), and of course arguing for the war in Iraq.Today, even when President Bush admits that there was no special al-Qaeda tie with Baghdad, Dick Cheney says there was. And when he speaks, as with so many of the neocons, he speaks the same words with almost a Soviet repetitiveness. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward quotes him as saying at the first NSC meeting after 9/11, “To the extent we define our task broadly, including those who support terrorism, we must get at the states.”

His style is secrets and stealth, more conducive to the Florentine Medicis, one would think, than to the New England Bushes. “This guy goes for the black cape first,” says one cogent observer, “not when everything else has failed.”

So in the end, where have Dick Cheney’s machinations led us? The two wars do not go well; already, the U.S. is cutting back on expectations in Iraq, willing just to get out by spring so the president can be re-elected. Afghanistan and Pakistan teeter. Cheney’s ahistorical side shows too well; even though he was apparently an apt political-science student, history teaches that when any power becomes too great, others will automatically gang up against it. Can he possibly not know that every great empire fell within 50 years of its height?

All through his early years, both during the Soviet era and the Gulf War, it was Dick Cheney who bitterly complained about American intelligence. But it now turns out that it was his intelligence that was so badly flawed in this war that one can scarcely grasp it. His own Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon and other such irregular organizations, designed to bypass traditional institutions, were the ones most egregiously wrong about Iraq. They bought in totally to the WMD illusion, to the bogus al-Qaeda/Iraq link, and to the nonexistent “center of terrorism” in Baghdad—in fact, they originated most of it. Ahmad Chalabi was their guy—he was going to take over immediately and open relations with Israel and democratize the whole Middle East. Chalabi was Cheney’s guy, above all, and it was his “intelligence” that was deliberately falsified.

So Dick Cheney turns out to be a true radical—not a moderate Republican. With President Bush-43, he has worked to wipe out the heritage of Father Bush, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft. When critics opine that Cheney has created his own “empire,” they are far from totally wrong, but it is an empire of irregulars: neocon Cold Warriors baying for another fight, American Likudniks out for Greater Israel, Special Planners, and Special Operations. Almost everything that this vice president has overseen has, interestingly enough, not been accomplished within traditional institutions but rather by creating new ones.

While there is little mystery about what he has actually done, there remains the mystery of how a man from Wyoming should be the epicenter of a scheme so strange, so Machiavellian, so profoundly disaggregated from the American context. But no one should expect Dick Cheney and his group to change. They will not. They will go down fighting, shouting—correction: whispering—that they are right.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Guerilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.

leave a comment

Latest Articles