Richard Cheney, U.S. vice president under George W. Bush (2001-2009), has been an influential figure in Republican Party politics since the 1970s. Widely considered one of the most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history, Cheney played an instrumental role in everything from expanding presidential war powers to pushing an aggressive "war on terror" that included overturning unfriendly Mideast regimes and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without charge.
His influential role dictating the agenda of the Bush administration has helped focus attention on the many erroneous statements and prognostications he made while in office. Among Cheney's mistaken claims: during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, he said that there was "no doubt" that the Saddam Hussein regime had "weapons of mass destruction"; he argued that U.S. troops would be greeted as "liberators"; and, as U.S. troops were battling an increasing insurgency in 2005, he argued that the insurgency was in its final stages.
Since leaving office, Cheney has remained politically active, becoming a member of the board of trustees of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, promoting massive military budgets to support U.S. war-fighting abilities, and serving as a vocal defender of the policies of the Bush administration as well as a harsh critic of the Barack Obama administration.
In a February 2013 interview with CBS, Cheney called Obama's foreign policy "terribly flawed" and accused the president of aiming to "reduce U.S. influence in the world," in part through appointing "second-rate" national security nominees like John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and John Brennan as CIA director. In a separate interview, the former vice president said that Obama had appointed Hagel, a Republican, primarily because he "wants to have a Republican that he can use to take the heat" for likely cuts to the Pentagon budget.
Cheney did, however, have kind words for the Obama administration's controversial targeted assassination program, calling the president's aggressive use of drone strikes "a good policy" and dismissing the need for checks and balances of the program. Reflecting on Cheney's praise for Obama's drone policy, Salon's Justin Elliott wrote, "the bigger story, though, is the gradual alignment of Obama's foreign policy worldview with Cheney's. It's not Cheney who has moved. That's a state of affairs that bears further inspection."
In the Obama Era
Cheney has frequently criticized the Obama administration, warning in April 2012 that the Democratic president's reelection would be an "unmitigated disaster" for the country. Accordingly, Cheney was an important promoter of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, helping raise campaign money for the former governor of Massachusetts.
In July 2012, Cheney hosted a Romney fundraising event at his ranch in Wyoming, which raised approximately $4 million for the candidate. Said Cheney at the event: "Whether it's 9/11 or the other kinds of difficulties and crises that arrive … when I think about the kind of individual I want in the Oval Office in that moment of crisis, who has to make those key decisions, some of them life and death decisions, decisions as the commander in chief, who has the responsibility for sending our young men and women in harm's way. That man's Mitt Romney." Despite the generous comments and donations, according to the New York Times, "Mr. Cheney remains unpopular with many Americans, and Mr. Romney's team went to great lengths to avoid any public images of the two men together."
Cheney has remained active on the policy front as well. In July 2012, he visited Capitol Hill to rally Republican senators to oppose potential cuts in defense spending, which could occur as a result of "sequestration," a process that would automatically cut $500 million from both domestic and security programs because of Congress' inability to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. deficit in 2011. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cheney spoke about the "need to keep money flowing in a predictable way so you can plan for the next war." Think Progress noted that sequestration would reduce Pentagon spending over the next 10 years to 2006 levels, when the United States was already outspending the rest of the world on defense and fighting two wars. The blog added that Cheney himself had overseen defense cuts on the order of 25 percent during his tenure as secretary of defense at the end of the Cold War.
Earlier, in March 2009, in a highly publicized interview on "60 Minutes," Cheney defended the Bush administration's "war on terror," including the treatment of prisoners at places like Guantanamo Bay. He claimed that President Obama's decision to close Guantanamo and prohibit "interrogation techniques" like waterboarding jeopardized U.S. security: "President Obama campaigned against [some Bush administration national security policies] all across the country and now he's making some choices that in my mind will in fact raise the risk to the American people of another attack."
Responding to the attack, Obama said, "How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment."
In 2011, Cheney released his memoir In My Time, a book covering his four decades in public life that the former vice president promised would have "heads exploding all over Washington." However, Michito Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, wrote that "heads are more likely to explode from frustration than from any sense of revelation. Indeed, the memoir—delivered in dry, often truculent prose—turns out to be mostly a predictable mix of spin, stonewalling, score settling and highly selective reminiscences." Coauthored with his daughter Elizabeth Cheney—a vocal proponent of extremely hawkish U.S foreign policies and founder of the group Keep America Safe—the book "reiterates Mr. Cheney's aggressive approach to foreign policy and his hard-line views on national security, while sidestepping questions about many of the Bush administration's more controversial decisions, either by cherry-picking information (much the way critics say the White House cherry-picked intelligence in making the case to go to war against Iraq) or by hopping and skipping over awkward subjects with loudly voiced assertions."
In December 2012, the neoconservative Hudson Institute honored Cheney with its annual Herman Kahn Award, according to a press release, "for his decades of high-level public service during some of the most fraught and critical moments in recent American history." The award was presented by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, who was convicted of lying to federal prosecutors about his office's role in the "Plamegate" scandal during the Bush administration.
Cheney used the occasion to bash the Obama administration's gradual shift in emphasis away from the Middle East, stoking fears about the "Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists" in the region. "That entire part of the world appears to be or a good part of it certainly to be moving in the direction that is fundamentally hostile to the long term US interest," Cheney claimed, "and yet we seem to be unable to influence events in that part of the world partly because we are headed for the exits and everybody knows we are headed for the exits."
Cheney also took the occasion to rally the crowd against anticipated reductions in the U.S. defense budget. "Barack Obama isn't just dealing with his budget problems," he said. "He in fact is restricting the future capabilities of the next president two or three times down the road in terms of our capacity to be able to deal with fundamental threats to the United States. They are out there, and we can be absolutely certain that there are people out there tonight planning to do what happened on 9/11 only with deadlier weapons than 19 hijackers armed with airline tickets and box cutters."
Vice Presidential Hallmarks
Washington Post writer Barton Gellman, in his award-winning 2008 expose The Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, argues that a key element in Cheney's arsenal as vice president was his ability to manipulate the federal bureaucracy to achieve his ends. As Daniel Luban wrote in a review of the book for Right Web: "Angler dispels some of the lazier caricatures of Cheney that have been put forth. The vice president comes across not as a rapacious Halliburton war profiteer, but as a man of deeply held principle; not as a Svengali pulling Bush's strings, but as a bureaucrat and policy wonk par excellence. It is in fact the image of Cheney as master bureaucrat that comes through most strongly and provides the key to understanding how he held and exercised power."
A hallmark of Cheney's tenure as vice president was his aggressive championing of a militarist "war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks, in particular the invasion of Iraq. Long before 9/11, both Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had pushed for invading Iraq. Both were charter signatories of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a pressure group tied to the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that was founded in the late 1990s to advocate hardline U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, including overthrowing Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, the vice president and his many neoconservative advisers played key roles in implementing the war on terror, whose centerpiece was ousting Hussein from power.
Another key feature of Cheney's VP tenure was secrecy. He continually fought to shield his office records from official scrutiny and he fended off a number challenges to get documents from his meetings publicly released. The most infamous instance of this was Cheney's attempt to prevent the release of any information about his meetings with energy industry executives early in the George W. Bush administration. Those notoriously secret meetings, whose main purpose was to help formulate the Bush administration's energy policies, became the focus of a drawn-out lawsuit spearheaded by the conservative group Judicial Watch.[xviii] Summarizing this aspect of Cheney's tenure, the Washington Post opined: "Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar, and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel has asserted that 'the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch,' and is therefore exempt from rules governing either."
Cheney also stridently fought off attempts to report on his office's classification activities, despite an executive order from Bush requiring every agency "within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information" to do so. Commenting on Cheney's refusal to comply with the order, Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said, "It undermines oversight of the classification system and reveals a disdain for presidential authority. It's part of a larger picture of disrespect that this vice president has shown for the norms of oversight and accountability."
In June 2007, Cheney and his staff, led by chief of staff David Addington, proposed eliminating the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is charged with reviewing agency classification activities. In response, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), then the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote in a letter to Cheney that the proposal to abolish the ISOO "could be construed as retaliation."
"I know that the vice president wants to operate with unprecedented secrecy. But this is absurd," Waxman told the New York Times. "The [executive order] is designed to keep classified information safe. His argument is really that he's not part of the executive branch, so he doesn't have to comply."
Cheney is renowned for his efforts to obfuscate the historical record. While vice president, he repeatedly contradicted other officials about issues in the Middle East and consistently made misleading allegations regarding Iraq's weapons arsenal and connections to terrorist groups. Two days before the United States invaded Iraq, for example, the vice president lambasted comments by International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, who had stated that there was "no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program [in Iraq]." In response, Cheney repeated the discredited notion that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons: "We know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong."
Another example of Cheney's tendency to bend the facts was his repeated assertion that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence agent Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. Before and after the invasion of Iraq, Cheney tried to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and the hijackers by claiming that Atta and Samir al-Ani had met in Prague in early 2001. He repeated this even after the Czech Republic acknowledged that it could not verify the meeting took place and despite U.S. intelligence agencies' inability to prove that Atta was outside the United States at the time of the alleged meeting. According to the Washington Post, Cheney and two key advisers—Stephen Hadley and I. Lewis Libby—made sure that references to the alleged meeting appeared in speeches and policy briefings even after "intelligence" regarding the event had been discredited.
As late as September 2003, Cheney was still repeating the dubious Atta tale, saying in an interview on Meet the Press: "With respect to 9/11, of course, we've had the story. ... The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop any more of that yet, either in terms of confirming or discrediting it."
This effort apparently alienated some officials in the Bush administration. The Post reported: "Behind the scenes, the Atta meeting remained tantalizing to Cheney and his staff. Libby—along with deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley—began pushing to include the Atta claim in Powell's appearance before the UN Security Council a week after the State of the Union speech. Powell's presentation was aimed at convincing the world of Iraq's ties to terrorists and its pursuit of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. On January 25, 2003, with a stack of notebooks at his side, color-coded with the sources for the information, Libby laid out the potential case against Iraq to a packed White House situation room. 'We read [their proposal to include the Atta story] and some of us said, "Wow! Here we go again," said one official who helped draft the speech. 'You write it. You take it out, and then it comes back again.' ... [Some] officials present said they felt that Libby's presentation was over the top … Much of it, in fact, unraveled when closely examined by intelligence analysts from other agencies and, in the end, was largely discarded."
Observers also criticized Cheney for his reported role in pushing allegations in 2007 that Iran was responsible for arming groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that field military officers expressed deep skepticism about the charges. Asked about the allegations—which were also made by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns—Dan McNeill, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, said, "What we've found so far hasn't been militarily significant on the battlefield." McNeill also said that more likely sources for the arms are drug traffickers, black market dealers, or al Qaeda groups.
The War Convert and Relationship with Neoconservatism
Many observers were surprised that Cheney, who previously had been George H.W. Bush's defense secretary and Gerald Ford's chief of staff, became the central player in the drive to the Iraq War. During the 1991 Gulf War, Cheney was eager to get out of Iraq and not press the fight after Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait. As Henry Rowen, then-assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told author James Mann: "As the war was coming to an end, I went to Cheney and said, 'You know, we could change the government and put in a democracy.' The answer he gave was that the Saudis wouldn't like it."
Commenting on Cheney's transformation into a leading Iraq War advocate, George H.W. Bush's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said, "The real anomaly in the administration is Cheney. I consider Cheney a good friend—I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore. ... I don't think Dick Cheney is a neocon, but allied to the core of neocons is that bunch who thought we made a mistake in the first Gulf War, that we should have finished the job. There was another bunch who were traumatized by 9/11, and who thought, 'The world's going to hell and we've got to show we're not going to take this, and we've got to respond, and Afghanistan is okay, but it's not sufficient.'"
Regardless of whether Cheney is a "neocon," he has long been associated with the neoconservative foreign policy agenda, notably its unilateralism, use of preemptive force, and support for Israeli militarism. For example, in the wake of the Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006, allegations emerged that Cheney and his cohorts had actively supported Israeli bombing plans. According to an unnamed U.S. government consultant "with close ties to Israel" interviewed by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, Israel had put together bombing plans long before Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, which set off the conflict. In early summer 2006, said the consultant, Israeli officials went to Washington "to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear. ... Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support." A former U.S. intelligence officer claimed, "We told Israel, 'Look, if you guys have to go, we're behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.'"
Scowcroft has argued that Cheney's transformation into a Middle East hawk was partly due to the influence of Bernard Lewis, a Princeton Middle East scholar who Cheney and other administration figures consulted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As Jeffrey Goldberg reported: "Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White House that the United States must assert itself. ... Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis's view of Middle East politics." Said Scowcroft : "It's that idea that we've got to hit somebody hard. ... And Bernard Lewis says, 'I believe that one of the things you've got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.'"
Early Career and Policy Trajectory
Cheney's reputation as a formidable bureaucratic player date back some 30 years to his time in the Nixon and Ford administrations, when he rose through the ranks to become the youngest White House chief of staff in history. After Nixon resigned and Ford took office, Cheney and then-White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld helped convince Ford to carry out a purge. Veteran journalist T.D. Allman recounted the episode: "Rumsfeld and Cheney staged a palace coup. They pushed Ford to fire Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, tell Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to look for another job, and remove Henry Kissinger from his post as national security adviser. Rumsfeld was named secretary of defense, and Cheney became chief of staff to the president. The Yale dropout and draft dodger was, at the age of 34, the second-most-powerful man in the White House."
Cheney's alliance with neoconservatives, including I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, also began long ago. Both Wolfowitz and Libby worked under Cheney when he was George H.W. Bush's defense secretary. In 1992, the three oversaw the creation of the notorious Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), the first draft of which is often regarded as an early blueprint for Bush's post 9/11 foreign policy. The scholars Chris Dolan and David Cohen write: "While the realists, most members of Congress, and the Clinton administration rejected the 1992 DPG draft, it would later be used by the neocons as a policy foundation from which to initiate the Bush doctrine in response to 9/11"
Meant to serve as a guide on how the world's lone superpower should respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the draft DPG advocated massively increasing military spending, using preventive—or preemptive—force, and forsaking multilateralism whenever it didn't suit U.S. interests.
In June 1993, five years after the draft DPG was produced, Cheney joined his neoconservative colleagues in launching the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). PNAC's founding statement of principles mirrored many of the goals laid out in the draft DPG, including the use of preemptive force. Signatories included Cheney, Libby, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, and a coterie of other core neoconservatives and right-wing Republicans. The same themes reappeared in the 2002 National Security Strategy, the seminal statement of the so-called Bush Doctrine. As described by leading international relations scholar Robert Jervis, the Bush Doctrine is composed of "a strong belief in the importance of a state's domestic regime in determining its foreign policy and the related judgment that this is an opportune time to transform international politics; the perception of great threats that can be defeated only by new and vigorous policies, most notably preventive war; a willingness to act unilaterally when necessary; and, as both a cause and a summary of these beliefs, an overriding sense that peace and stability require the United States to assert its primacy in world politics."
Although Cheney began his government career in the Nixon administration, it was as a member of the House of Representatives in the 1980s that he solidified the conservative credentials that would propel him to head the Pentagon under the first President Bush. As a congressman, Cheney opposed the ban on selling armor-piercing bullets, opposed sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa, and voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. He voted for a constitutional amendment to ban school busing, against Head Start, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Clean Water Act. He was one of only four representatives to oppose the ban on guns that can pass undetected through metal detectors.
Dick Cheney is married to Lynne Cheney, an AEI fellow and former head of the National Endowment for Humanities, and is the father of Elizabeth Cheney, who served in a number of posts in the State Department during the two George W. Bush terms, and Mary Cheney, who served as a board member of the Republican Unity Coalition, an organization aimed at building bridges between gay and straight Republicans.