As far as America’s political left is concerned, Dick Cheney isn’t merely a wrong-headed Republican; he’s the spawn of the devil. The liberal mainstream media always treated Cheney as George W. Bush’s whipping boy during his administration and this week he’s been continuing that tradition by being willing to get out in front of the cameras after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. Cheney’s unrepentant and unapologetic defense of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques during his appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, where he was closely questioned by host Chuck Todd, has sent his detractors over the cliff into heights of rhetorical excess and rage that make this debate take on the appearance of a Medieval theological disputation. But while Cheney may be accused of sounding insensitive about some of the very nasty things that were done to al-Qaeda prisoners, he nevertheless seems to posses a degree of moral clarity that few of his critics seem to have.
The discussion about torture reminds us of the qualities that always annoyed his opponents most about Cheney. It’s not just that he does things they hate, it’s his air of defiance in which he doesn’t even accept the premise of the questions posed to him that makes them think he is evil. One example comes from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait who commented on an earlier appearance by the former vice president on Fox News during which he wouldn’t budge from his stance even when asked about some particularly brutal conditions imposed on the terror suspects:
The host, Bret Baier, asked Cheney about Bush’s reported discomfort when told of a detainee’s having been chained to a dungeon ceiling, clothed only in a diaper, and forced to urinate and defecate on himself. “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘Please, please, tell us what you know’?” Cheney said. “Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts.”
Here, finally, was the brutal moral logic of Cheneyism on bright display. The insistence by his fellow partisans on averting their eyes from the horrible truth at least grows out of a human reaction. Cheney does not even understand why somebody would look away. His soul is a cold, black void.
Chait’s argument rests on the notion that even if you thought torture might be necessary, the decent thing to do is to act shocked or horrified by the ill treatment of even the bad guys of al-Qaeda. Cheney won’t play that game and that makes him not only infuriating to liberals but a poster child for the necessity of prosecuting Bush administration figures involved in the practice because, as the New York Times’s Juliet Lapidos wrote, he is “among those looking forward—to a time when, under a different administration, it might be possible to “do it again.” They believe his steely resolution that the right thing was done and lack of qualms about these admittedly tough measures show he lacks a soul that even people like Chait are willing to concede Bush might have possessed.
But while in private life the characteristics Cheney is exhibiting might seem egregious, they are also evidence of exactly what we need from wartime leaders.
What Cheney remembers and all of those who are carrying on about the one-sided and often misleading Senate report forget, is that the Bush administration’s primary responsibility after 9/11 was ensuring that another atrocity didn’t occur and that the U.S. didn’t lose the war that al-Qaeda was waging against it. Throughout the history of this republic, wartime leaders have always been forced to do some things that don’t look too good outside of the context of the time and the situation. As I wrote last week after the report was released, war is, at best, a morally ambiguous affair and always involves brutality and bloodshed even waged for moral causes.
When pressed about specifics about torture, Cheney stands his ground and answers that the real definition of torture is what happened to the victims of 9/11, not the temporary discomfort of their murderers. That can rightly be put down as sophistry. As Chait writes, there is a difference between mass murder and torture. But to those charged with the responsibility of defending America, the only real bottom line is whether the enemy is stopped and defeated. According to most of those in the know, the committee’s report is wrong to assert that the controversial interrogations did not provide useful intelligence. As long as that is true, Cheney won’t be squeamish or play the hypocrite. He believes it was the right thing to do and won’t avert his gaze from the behavior that helped achieve this result.
That may not strike most people as the sort of public attitude they want our leaders to display since Americans have always clung to the notion that they never had to stoop to the level of their enemies to win wars even if that was always a myth. But is Cheney’s attitude really any different from the defiant defense of drone attacks that we hear from the Obama administration? In the last several years, America has fought the war against Islamist terror mainly by waging remote-control war with bombs that kill civilians along with the bad guys. Everyone knows this, but somehow this preference for killing rather than capturing and then interrogating prisoners is somehow considered more moral.
Dick Cheney’s soul isn’t any less than that of Barack Obama because he was willing to unflinchingly defend torture to extract intelligence while the latter prefers to order strikes that kill rather than merely harm civilians along with terrorists.
This quality may not make Cheney likeable but it was the reason why he was the right man for the job at the time. It may not be easy for liberals to admit, but he helped keep us safe and ensured that al-Qaeda would be beaten. The tactics aren’t easy to look at, but as he can rightly assert, the only thing in war that counts in the long run is the results. That’s all the moral clarity history ever asks of wartime leaders.