Dick Cheney, Mr. Chutzpah

The former vice president helps blow up Iraq, then berates the guy he left with the mess

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The infinitely valuable Yiddish word “chutzpah” is defined as “shameless audacity” or “impudence.” It’s singularly appropriate for the astonishing op-ed piece that former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz published in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. It’s not every day that a leader of the previous administration suggests that the current president is a “fool” and accuses him of intentionally weakening the United States.

“President Obama seems determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch,” the Cheneys write. Are they charging our president with treason? “President Obama,” they write, “is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom.”

Squandered our freedom?

“Only a fool would believe American policy in Iraq should be ceded to Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” they say. As if this is what Obama is doing. As if it wasn’t the invasion Mr. Cheney so passionately supported that vastly strengthened Iran’s hand long before Mr. Obama took office.

The Cheney polemic would be outrageous even if our former vice president’s record on Iraq had been one of absolute clairvoyance. As it happens, he was wrong in almost every prediction he made about the war.

Just days before the war started, Mr. Cheney sat down with the late Tim Russert of NBC for the most revealing of the prewar interviews. Mr. Cheney was adamant that “to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement.

“We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” he famously said, before playing down the very sectarian divisions that plague the country now. Russert asked: “And you are convinced the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites will come together in a democracy?” Mr. Cheney: “They have so far.” He went on:

“[T]hey’ve come together, I think, very effectively, with representatives from Shia, Sunni and Kurdish elements in the population. They understand the importance of preserving and building on an Iraqi national identity . . .  The prospects of being able to achieve this kind of success, if you will, from a political standpoint, are probably better than they would be for virtually any other country and under similar circumstances in that part of the world.”

Ah yes, regime change would work out just fine. “Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad,” Mr. Cheney had told the Veterans of Foreign Wars seven months earlier. “Moderates throughout the region would take heart.” 

Thanks to the Cheney op-ed, we can see how Mr. Obama’s hawkish critics are out to create a double standard. Whenever they are called out for how mistaken they were about Iraq in the first place, they piously lecture against “re-litigating the past” and say we must instead look forward. At the same time, many of them feel perfectly free to trash the president in extreme and even vile terms.

I am all for looking forward and trying to square the contradictions we face: of needing to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to undo anti-Sunni policies that empower the forces we need to turn back; of being on the same side as Iran in Iraq’s emergency but on opposite sides over Syria; of wanting to avoid steps that would make things worse while not being paralyzed; and of not plunging into a Shiite-Sunni war while trying to stop the region’s descent into chaos.

Mr. Obama sees these contradictions and says he won’t act rashly. You don’t have to agree with Mr. Obama’s every move to prefer his prudence to the utter certainty that “we will be greeted as liberators” and to a habit of underestimating the costs of military action.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).


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