Andrew Sullivan begins to explain Dick Cheney’s recent odd agreement with anti-torture journalist Mark Danner – as both call for the release of memos which demonstrate the efficacy of torture with this typically insightful observation:
The one thing you saw most plainly in the Plame affair is how obsessed Dick Cheney is with public image, the chattering classes and spinning stories that might reflect poorly on him. The act is the elder statesman, authoritatively reviewing the world scene, soberly making judgments, calmly explaining it later to those pesky people who are required to elect you every four years.
This seems obviously true now that I’ve read it – although I cannot remember this point being discussed before. Cheney demonstrated that he cared a great deal for his public image – even if he was not concerned with that other related quality which we can call popularity. Where I think Andrew goes wrong is in how he explains Cheney’s support for torture in the next sentence:
The reality is a man who lost it on 9/11, leapt immediately to apocalyptic conclusions, and then, as the dust cleared, was unable to go back on the war crimes he had authorized and so dug in ever more deeply to justify them.
I cannot know what precisely motivated Cheney in the aftermath of September 11. But my impression is not that he lost it – but that he saw it as an opportunity to do what needed to be done. Certainly Andrew would agree with this assessment as to Cheney’s motivation regarding executive power and the unitary executive and even the invasion of Iraq. Cheney wanted to do all of these things beforehand and saw September 11 as a justification for each of his preconceived policy prescriptions. Andrew is now trying to account for why Cheney authorized torture – starting with the presumption that he did not plan on doing so beforehand. I too doubt that Cheney intended to institute a policy of torture before he came into the White House. But I believe that given his beliefs, it was inevitable that he would support it, whether September 11 happened or not. Without September 11, he may never have been given the chance to support it – but he would have done so if he had been given such a chance.
There is little evidence of Cheney’s thinking about torture before September 11 – although Barton Gellman in The Angler describes Cheney’s beliefs about torture in the context of the kidnapping and torture of William Buckley by Hezbollah in Beirut in 1984:
Cheney had been thinking about the power of cruelty since at least 1984. In March of that year, the CIA’s chief of station in Beirut, William Buckley, fell into the hands of Hezbollah. “He has kidnapped and tortured,” recalled Tom Smeeton, a former CIA officer who served then as minority staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. Cheney, a committee member, followed the Buckley case closely, reviewing a secretly obtained videotape of the station chief’s decline. Cheney “was quite concerned about the implications of his torture and what that could mean in terms of revelations of various intelligence operations going on in the Middle East,” Smeeton said. The presumption they shared, with foreboding, was that torture worked.
I’m sure Cheney – like many who watch action movies – believed that torture was effective. At the same time, Cheney seemed to have a romantic notion of doing the hard, unpopular thing – of living in moral gray areas – of the dark but necessary arts. This of course was evident in his infamous Meet the Press appearance on September 16, 2001. You can see this attitude in his opinion of the crimes of the Richard Nixon and Iran-Contra scandals. This romanticization of the Dark Side of power – the necessary evils done by rough men in the night to protect the rest of us made torture was inevitable. Of course, torture is not normally considered a “gray” area – so a legalistic distinction had to be made:
After September 11, Cheney and his allies pioneered a distinction that the U.S. government had not claimed before. “Torture,” narrowly defined, would remain out of bounds. But violent, cruel, or degrading methods, the terms of art in Geneva, were perfectly lawful.
But the main reason I don’t buy the idea that Cheney’s decision to torture was a product of panic was his apparent composure on September 11 – and the coherence of his response. Back to Barton Gellman in The Angler again:
If a mandarinate ruled America, the recruiting committee on September 11 would have had to find someone like Cheney. “I don’t want to get too poetic about this, but it’s almost as if his whole life had been a preparation for this moment in history,” said Jack Kemp, who used to be a future vice president himself. Scooter Libby quoted that line, too, giving credit to Winston Churchill. Cheney professed no knowledge of fate. He had some acquaintance, though, with force and counterforce. Al Qaeda having struck on his watch, Cheney made clear by word and deed that he would take a leading role in the nation’s reply. So, too, did Libby and Addington. The three of them simply knew what had to be done, a considerable advantage in the debate that would soon follow.
By my reading, the Bush administration approved torture because in the aftermath of September 11, every one panicked – except Dick Cheney – who calmly applied his governing philosophy to the crisis. Cheney himself fomented and controlled the panic with such things as the One Percent Doctrine. His romantic attitude is best demonstrated by the character of Jack Bauer:
Except apparently for the fact that Bauer is humanized by his guilt over what he has done and believes it is necessary for the system to bring him to justice.
Cheney has exhibited no such guilt for his actions – and in fact has demonstrated pride.
Cheney didn’t panic on September 11 – and I don’t think he is panicking now. He does not believe he did anything wrong – and he does believe that no matter what the press says today, history will support him in the end. This is part of his romantic self-image – of a master of the Dark Side. He knows that if torture is held to be not only evil, but an ineffective (and indeed counterproductive) tactic, his legacy will be forever blackened. He’s fighting for his legacy – part of which is the endorsement of torture. He truly believes torture works – and he seems to feel no shame about having authorized it.