Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

A PROFILE OF DICK CHENEY....Newsweek's cover story this week is "How Dick Cheney Sold the War." As Josh Marshall points out, "The meme at last seems to be taking flight," and the only surprise is that it's taken so long. The fact that Cheney has been the primary architect of our Iraq strategy seems like it's been obvious for nearly a year now.

However, there's an interesting aspect to this aside from stock Cheney bashing. As the Newseek profile says:

Cheney, say those who know him, is in no way cynically manipulative. By all accounts, he is genuinely convinced that the threat is imminent and menacing. Professional intelligence analysts can offer measured, nuanced opinions, but policymakers, Cheney likes to say, have to decide.

In the same vein, I want to reprint something I came across earlier this year: a profile of Cheney from the unlikely source of John Perry Barlow, better known as a former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It turns out that Barlow grew up in Cheney's home state of Wyoming, and that back in the 80s he knew Cheney pretty well. The essay below is his attempt to figure out what Cheney is up to, and while I don't especially endorse or reject any of it, I did find it provocative and intriguing even though we now know that the invasion of Iraq was no bluff at all. It's an interesting read.

Sympathy For The Devil
By John Perry Barlow

I remember a time years ago when I was as convinced that Dick Cheney was obscenely wrong about something as I am now. Subsequent events raised the possibility that he might not have been so wrong after all. With this in mind, I've given some thought lately to how all this might look to the Vice President (who is, I remain convinced, as much the real architect of American policy as he was while Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff or George the First's Secretary of Defense).

As I've mentioned, I once knew Cheney pretty well. I helped him get elected to his first public office as Wyoming's lone congressman. I conspired with him on the right side of environmental issues. Working closely together, we were instrumental in closing down a copper smelter in Douglas, Arizona the grandfathered effluents of which were causing acid rain in Wyoming's Wind River mountains. We were densely interactive allies in creating the Wyoming Wilderness Act. He used to go fishing on my ranch. We were friends.

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I've ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour of all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. In the final analysis, this may simply be about oil, but I doubt that Dick sees it that way. I am relatively certain that he is acting in the service of principles to which he has devoted megawatts of a kind of thought that is unimpeded by sentiment or other emotional overhead.

Here is the problem I think Dick Cheney is trying to address at the moment: How does one assure global stability in a world where there is only one strong power? This is a question that his opposition, myself included, has not asked out loud. It's not an easy question to answer, but neither is it a question to ignore.

Historically, there have only been two methods by which nations have prevented the catastrophic conflict which seems to be their deepest habit.

The more common of these has been symmetrical balance of power. This is what kept another world war from breaking out between 1945 and 1990. The Cold War was the ultimate Mexican stand-off, and though many died around its hot edges - in Vietnam, Korea, and countless more obscure venues - it was a comparatively peaceful period. Certainly, the global body count was much lower in the second half of the twentieth century than it was in the first half. Unthinkable calamity threatened throughout, but it did not occur.

The other means by which long terms of peace or, more accurately, non-war have been achieved is the unequivocal domination by a single ruthless power. The best example of this is, of course, the Pax Romana, a "world" peace which lasted from about 27 BCE until 180 AD. I grant that the Romans were not the most benign of rulers. They crucified dissidents for decoration, fed lesser humans to their pets, and generally scared the bejesus out of everyone, including Jesus Himself. But war, of the sort that racked the Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, and indeed, just about everyone prior to Julius Caesar, did not occur. The Romans had decided it was bad for business. They were in a military position to make that opinion stick.

(There was a minority view of the Pax Romanum, well stated at its height by Tacitus: "To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace." It would be well to keep that admonition in mind now.)

There are other, more benign, examples of lengthily imposed peace. One could argue that the near absence of major international wars in the Western Hemisphere results from the overwhelming presence of the United States which, while hardly a dream neighbor, has at least stopped most of the New World wars that it didn't start. The Ottoman Empire had a pretty good run, about 700 years, after drawing its borders in blood. The Pharoahs kept the peace, at least along the Nile, for over 2800 years until Alexander the Great showed up.

If one takes the view that war is worse than tyranny and that the latter doesn't necessarily beget the former, there is a case to be made for global despotism. That case is unfortunately stronger, in the light of history, than the proposition that nations will coexist peacefully if we all try really, really hard to be nice to each other.

It is certainly unlikely at the moment that geopolitical stability can be achieved by the formation of some new detente like the one that terrified us into peace during the Cold War. Europe, old and new, is furious with the United States at the moment (if my unscientific polls while there in January are at all accurate), but they are a very long way from confronting us with any military threat we'd find credible.

I'm pretty sure that, soon enough, hatred of our Great Satanic selves will provide the Islamic World with a unity they have lacked since the Prophet's son-in-law twisted off and started Shi'ism. But beyond their demonstrated capacity to turn us into a nation of chickenshits and control freaks, I can't imagine them erecting a pacifying balance force against our appalling might.

I believe that Dick Cheney has thought all these considerations through in vastly greater detail than I'm providing here and has reached these following conclusions: first, that it is in the best interests of humanity that the United States impose a fearful peace upon the world and, second, that the best way to begin that epoch would be to establish dominion over the Middle East through the American Protectorate of Iraq. In other words, it's not about oil, it's about power and peace.

Well, alright. It is about oil, I guess, but only in the sense that the primary goal of the American Peace is to guarantee the Global Corporations reliable access to all natural resources, wherever they may lie. The multinationals are Cheney's real constituents, regardless of their stock in trade or their putative country of origin. He knows, as the Romans did, that war is bad for business.

But what's more important is that he also knows that business is bad for war. He knows, for example, there there has never been a war between two countries that harbored McDonald's franchises. I actually think it's possible that, however counter-intuitive and risky his methods for getting it, what Dick Cheney really wants is peace. Though much has been made of his connection to Halliburton and the rest of the Ol Bidness, he is not acting in the service of personal greed. He is a man of principle. He is acting in the service of intentions that are to him as noble as mine are to me and not entirely different.

How can this be? Return with me now to the last time I was convinced he was insanely endangering life on earth. This was back in the early 1983 when Dick Cheney was, at least by appearances, a mere congressman. He was also Congressional point man for the deployment of the MX missile system in our mutual home state of Wyoming. (The MX was also called the "Peacemaker," a moniker I took at the time to be the darkest of ironies.)

The MX was, and indeed still is, a Very Scary Thing. A single MX missile could hit each of 10 different targets, hundreds of miles apart, with about 600 kilotons of explosive force. For purposes of comparison, Hiroshima was flattened by a 17 kiloton nuclear blast. Thus, each of the MX's warheads could glaze over an area 35 times larger than the original Ground Zero. Furthermore, 100 MX missiles were to lie beneath the Wyoming plains, Doomsday on the Range.

Any one of the 6000 MX warheads would probably incinerate just about every living thing in Moscow. But Cheney's plan cooked up with Brent Scowcroft, Don Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and other familiar suspects was not about targeting cities, as had been the accepted practice of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The MX was to be aimed instead at the other side's missile emplacements.

The problem with this "counter-force strategy," as it was called, was that it was essentially a first-strike policy. The MX was to be placed in highly vulnerable Minuteman silos. In the event of a Soviet first strike, all of the Peacemakers would have been easily wiped out. Thus, they were either to be launched preemptively or they were set to "launch on warning." The MX was to be either an offensive weapon or the automated hair-trigger was to be pulled on all hundred of them within a very few minutes after the first Soviet missile broke our radar horizon .

In either case, the logic behind it appeared to call for fighting and winning a nuclear war. Meanwhile, President Reagan was bellowing about "the Evil Empire" and issuing many statements that seemed to consider Armageddon a plausible option.

I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill during the winter of 1981-82. I lobbied over a hundred Congressmen and Senators against a policy that seemed to me the craziest thing that human beings had ever proposed. The only member of Congress who knew more about it than I did was Dick Cheney.

Veteran Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory accompanied me on one of my futile visits to his office, where she spent better than an hour listening to us argue about "circular errors probable" and "MIRV decoys" and the other niceties of nuclear nightmare. When we were leaving, she, who had seen a lot of politicians in her long day, turned to me and said, "I think your guy Cheney is the most dangerous person I've ever seen up here." At that point, I agreed with her.

What I was not thinking about, however, was the technique I once used to avoid being run off the road by Mexican bus drivers, back when their roads were narrower and their bus drivers even more macho. Whenever I saw a bus barrelling down the centerline at me, I would start driving unpredictably, weaving from shoulder to shoulder as though muy borracho. As soon as I started to radiate dangerously low regard for my own preservation, the bus would slow down and move over.

As it turned out, this is more or less what Cheney and his phalanx of Big Stategic Thinkers were doing, if one imagined the Soviet Union as a speeding Mexican bus. They were determined to project such a vision of implacable, irrational, lethality that the Soviet leaders would decide to capitulate rather than risk universal annihilation.

It worked. While I think that rock 'n' roll and the systemic failures of central planning had as much to do with the collapse of communism as did Dick's mad gamble, I have to confess that, by 1990, he didn't look quite so nuts to me after all. The MX, along with Star Wars and Reagan's terrifying rhetoric, had been all along a weapon for waging psychological rather than nuclear warfare.

I'm starting to wonder if we aren't watching something like the same strategy again. In other words, it's possible Cheney and company are actually bluffing.This time, instead of trying to terrify the Soviets into collapse, the objective is even grander. If I'm right about this, they have two goals. Neither involves actual war, any more than the MX missile did.

First, they seek to scare Saddam Hussein into voluntarily turning his country over to the U.S. and choosing safe exile or, failing that, they want to convince the Iraqi people that it's safer to attempt his overthrow or assassination than to endure an invasion by American ground troops.

Second, they are trying to convince every other nation on the planet that the United States is the Mother of All Rogue States, run by mad thugs in possession of 15,000 nuclear warheads they are willing to use and spending, as they already are, more on death-making capacity than all the other countries on the planet combined. In other words, they want the rest of the world to think that we are the ultimate weaving driver. Not to be trusted, but certainly not to be messed with either.

By these terrible means, they will create a world where war conducted by any country but the United States will seem simply too risky and the Great American Peace will begin. Unregulated Global Corporatism will be the only permissible ideology, every human will have access to McDonald's and the Home Shopping Network, all "news" will come through some variant of AOLTimeWarnerCNN, the Internet will be run by Microsoft, and so it will remain for a long time. Peace. On Prozac.

If I were in charge, this is neither the flavor of peace I would prefer nor the way I would achieve it. But if I'd been in charge back in 1983, there might still be a Soviet Union and we might all still be waiting for the world to end in fifteen nuclear minutes.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about this. Maybe they actually are possessed of a madness to which there is no method. Maybe they really do intend to invade Iraq and for no more noble reason than giving American SUVs another 50 years of cheap gas. We'll probably know which it's going to be sometime in the next fortnight.

By then, I expect to be dancing in Brazil, far from this heart of darkness and closer to the heart itself.

Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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