Until today, the sectarian conflict in Iraq has put the mess into messaging. For an administration already in love with nuance, explaining how the United States should engage in Iraq presents the worst on-the-one-hand-on-the-other challenge in the world. But sometimes it’s better to be lucky in communications than good, and for that Obama has Dick Cheney to thank. The more the former vice president talks, the better Obama seems.
In a Wall Street Journal oped and a video Cheney released with his daughter Liz announcing the creation of The Alliance for a Strong America, Cheney comes across like a grumpy man waking from an unsatisfying nap. Devoid of specific suggestions or coherent criticisms, his diatribe has the heft of a confused growl.
To check Cheney’s facts is to enjoy a target-rich environment. In the video, Cheney accused Obama of lying about Benghazi a day after we learned that the administration was right all along. Cheney snarls that Obama withdrew U.S. troops “with no leave-behind agreement” even though George W. Bush signed the treaty to pull out by 2011. And to grouse that “our enemies no longer fear us” conveniently ignores the deaths of Osama bin Laden and 14 other leaders of al Qaeda and the arrest of Benghazi terrorist Ahmed Abu Khatallah.
After yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes, Curveball, WMDs, and linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, we should be embarrassed to consider fact-checking Cheney to be worth our time. Offering a policy prescription to solve the crises in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria isn’t what Cheney’s after, either. Cheney’s not even trying to rehabilitate his support for invading Iraq in the first place, a decision his WSJ column and video completely ignore.
The funniest thing about Cheney is — at least here — the most instructive. He shot his hunting buddy in the face, and his friend apologized. Cheney’s re-introduction into the national security discussion is the political equivalent of friendly fire, except this is no accident. Cheney is using Obama’s foreign policy struggles to pick a fight with isolationists in his own party in the run-up to the 2016 primaries. Dick mentions Benghazi, but this call is not for Hillary. Rand Paul, line one is for you.
Liz gives up the game when she says the Alliance’s purpose is to “reverse President Obama’s policies” and “restore American power and preeminence.” How might the Cheneys accomplish this? Not by advocating any course of action at all during the crisis in Iraq but by ensuring “that these issues are a critical part of America’s national debate and discussion over the next two years,” says Lynne.
I claim no pride of authorship for the idea that Cheney is a useful foil for Obama. Jonathan Chait wrote a piece under the headline, “Actually, let’s hear more from Dick Cheney on Iraq.” On the Senate floor today [Wednesday], Sen. Harry Reid said, “Being on the wrong side of Dick Cheney is being on the right side of history.” To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney is a known known. Every self-assured snarl he utters reminds us on a precognitive level why Iraq became a national security Superfund site to begin with.
It’s too late for Dick Cheney to rehab his legacy. The American people have made their decision about the Iraq War. Today, we are looking to a future where we use our military only when necessary and instead use America’s leadership role to create free and just societies, and it is in the contrast of Cheney’s gruff style with Obama’s cool pragmatism that the former Vice President proves most useful.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, presents the U.S. with a new, post-al Qaeda enemy that has destabilized a region from Palestine to Baghdad. ISIL has kidnapped the Turkish consul general in Mosul, a clear incursion against a NATO ally. We have real interests in this region and are the only ones capable of leading a multilateral coalition to prevent Iraq’s collapse.
But we will accomplish nothing if our only two options are Cheney’s invade-first strategy and Paul’s isolationism. Thank God for Dick Cheney. Before this week, Obama’s options were limited by a public justifiably tired of international entanglements. Now all he has to do is jab a thumb at the lot of Cheney, John McCain, and the rest of the Iraq War apologists and promise that whatever happens, he’s not repeating their mistakes. At long last, Dick Cheney is finally the right man at the right time.
Jason Stanford is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He is also a national Democratic consultant based in Austin, Texas, and writes regular columns for The Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report.