A few months after Barack Obama was sworn in as president, Dick Cheney sat down with Sean Hannity for — I couldn’t call it an “interview,” more of an exchange of talking points — in which he lambasted the new president for coddling terrorists. The conversation took the form of Hannity launching the attacks, and Cheney endorsing them. Obama lacks “the courage to call it a war on terror,” right? Right. “It’s telegraphing weakness,” right? Right. Obama loves Chávez, Ortega, Iran, and Mexico (Mexico?), so obviously he doesn’t understand the war on terror, right? Right. Cheney chimed in that Obama’s policy amounted to, “we don’t have to be as tough and aggressive as the Bush administration was.”
Following the killing of Anwar Awlaki, the administration’s latest success in a stepped-up campaign of targeting Al Qaeda, Cheney is back in the news again. Unsurprisingly, Cheney is not offering any apologies. Instead he’s demanding that Obama give one — to him.
How does this event vindicate Cheney? By his logic, the administration’s policy of striking Al Qaeda proves that George W. Bush and (especially) Cheney were right all along. “They’ve agreed,” argues Cheney in a CNN interview, “they need to be tough and aggressive in defending the nation and using some of the same techniques that the Bush administration did.” So Cheney was right!
This bizarre conclusion is interesting not only as a window into Cheney’s hermetically sealed mind, in which it is always dark and cold and the television is always tuned to Fox News, but as an expression of a larger neoconservative fallacy. After the 9/11 attacks, neoconservatives concluded that the proper response was a conventional war. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, in a column written a few weeks after the attacks, summed up the right’s mentality:
Yes, we need to get Osama bin Laden. Yes, we need to bring down the terrorist networks. But the overriding aim of the war on terrorism is changing regimes. And it starts with the Taliban. Searching Afghan caves for bin Laden is precisely the trap he would wish us to fall into. Terrorists cannot operate without the succor and protection of governments. The planet is divided into countries. Unless terrorists want to camp in Antarctica, they must live in sovereign states. The objective of this war must be to make it impossible or intolerable for any state to harbor, protect or aid and abet terrorists. The point is not to swat every mosquito, but to drain the swamp.
That sentiment informed the Bush administration’s policies. Killing terrorists is okay, but it’s a distraction. This is a war, and you fight wars by deploying armies in the field against states. That is the belief that drove the Bush administration to deem war against Iraq an essential part of the war on terror.
Liberal hawks thought this was a tragic loss of focus. In the third 2004 presidential debate, John Kerry assailed Bush for letting Osama bin Laden escape, and declared, “We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.” Bush shot back, “My opponent said this war is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement. No, this war is a matter of using every asset at our disposal to keep the American people protected.”
Essentially the same dispute reappeared in 2008, this time with John McCain serving as proxy defender for the Bush administration’s worldview, and Obama representing the liberal hawk critique. During their second debate, he repeated Kerry’s critique — “So what happened was we got distracted, we diverted resources, and ultimately bin Laden escaped, set up base camps in the mountains of Pakistan in the northwest provinces there” — and promised to deploy more missile strikes against terrorists there, which he has since done. McCain expressed incredulity (“He said he wants to announce that he's going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.”)
That was the nub of Bush’s worldview. The war on terror was a war, something fought with massed military power. If you were criticizing Bush’s approach from the left, you were in favor of weakness and surrender. If you criticized it from the right, you were in favor of a new land invasion. The neoconservatives genuinely seemed to believe that the strategic options lay along a linear scale, from soft to tough. By this way of thinking, Obama was accusing them of acting too tough.
And so, since he has killed a great many terrorists, Obama is now “tough,” and has therefore adopted the Bush–Cheney approach. Cheney’s bizarre misapprehension about the current administration simply reflects his failure to even conceive of the possibility that the fight against Al Qaeda might be waged, not just less, but better.