Commentary Magazine


Cheney Once Again

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Leslie Gelb are on the same page regarding the president’s foreign-policy performance – specifically his meandering, irresolute first year, in which he has proved his toughest critics right. In an interview with Politico, Cheney gives voice to what a broad range of observers (both domestic and foreign) now think of Obama’s no-longer-new presidency:

“I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” Cheney said. “Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” … Those folks … begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies. … They’re worried the United States isn’t going to be there much longer and the bad guys are.”

In Cheney’s view, this is an inexperienced president who is simply not up for the job (“Sometimes I have the feeling that they’re just figuring that out,” he says of Afghanistan war planning and the lessons of Iraq) and who embraces a radical worldview that rejects American exceptionalism (“I am increasingly convinced that he’s not as committed to or as wedded to that concept as most of the presidents I’ve known, Republican or Democrat”).

It is December, and in less than a year Cheney now represents a good deal of mainstream thinking, both in the Beltway and among ordinary Americans. That’s how far we’ve come. Meanwhile, Obama is increasingly seen as ideologically misguided and temperamentally at a loss to deal with the plethora of international challenges, which will only increase as a worldwide audience takes in his haphazard performance.

Whether it is the mullahs in Iran or democracy advocates living in despotic regimes, Obama has projected an image that he must, if his presidency is to be successful, reverse. Where he has appeared naive, he must now show that he is savvy. Where he has shown aversion to hard power, he must now demonstrate his bona fides as a wartime commander. And it is harder, terribly so, now that he must convince players on the world stage (both friends and foes) that he really, honestly, after all does mean it.

Cheney has consistently called out the administration for its poor judgment (e.g., on Guantanamo, the CIA) and lousy execution. Other conservatives who wish to lead the opposition have followed suit and will, I suspect, continue the lines of attack Cheney has outlined. But the real issue is whether the administration has internalized the substance of what Cheney is saying (echoed by columnists and pundits whom the administration may find more palatable). If so, there is perhaps time to reverse the trajectory of this presidency, and specifically the entire Obama approach to foreign policy. If not, it will be a very rocky three years.