Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is an outspoken and controversial proponent of hawkish U.S. foreign policies and founder of the lobbying group Keep America Safe, which is closely tied to a web of neoconservative advocacy organizations.
During the George W. Bush presidency, Cheney worked in the State Department overseeing Middle East policy. After the election of Barack Obama, she became a standard-bearer for the militaristic agenda pursued by her father during the Bush years, founding Keep America Safe and serving as a go-to pundit on conservative media outlets like Fox News. A confrontational Republican partisan, she has called Obama "the most radical man to ever Occupy the Oval Office" and accused the president of "so effectively diminish[ing] American strength abroad that there is no longer a question of whether this was his intent."
In mid-2013, Cheney announced that she was challenging Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi in the upcoming Republican primary. Many observers expressed surprise at her decision to take on the relatively popular Enzi—and also to contest a seat in Wyoming rather than Virginia, where she has spent most of her life. Indeed, one poll released after Cheney's announcement suggested that nearly half of Wyoming Republicans thought that she should run in Virginia instead.
Early on, some observers linked Cheney's bid to a growing tendency among younger conservatives to challenge establishment politicians seen as too "consensus-minded," suggesting that the reliably conservative Enzi could be vulnerable for cooperating with Democrats on legislation designed to allow states to tax online transactions. But the backlash from older party figures was considerable, with GOP senators closing ranks around Enzi and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) warning that Cheney's bid could bring about "the destruction of the Republican Party of Wyoming." "I love Liz Cheney," added well-known conservative pundit Ann Coulter. "But why should we be having a rancorous primary against a good Republican senator other than for Liz Cheney's ego? … We are allowing shysters to take advantage of the Republican Party."
The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf observed that while "there are probably some Republican operatives who are upset that [Cheney] didn't 'wait her turn,'" other critics of Cheney were hardly lacking for fodder. Characterizing Cheney's alarmist, right-wing attacks on Obama's generally hawkish security policies as "especially inane," Friedersdorf concluded that "This is someone who has a history of mistaken foreign-policy judgments, an inability to make sophisticated critiques of ideological opponents, and a bad habit of behaving dishonorably toward rivals. She should never be trusted to hold elected office in America."
Cheney's bid stumbled in its early months amid a rash of negative press. Among the problems, Cheney falsely claimed on a fishing license application that she had lived in the state for 10 years, when in fact at that point she had closed on her home in Wyoming only 72 days previously. The resulting dustup generated a host of negative stories in the state, where many critics accused Cheney of "carpetbagging," moving to lightly populated Wyoming simply to seek office. Cheney subsequently paid a $220 fine for the infraction, all the while blaming a clerk for the error and then verbally attacking a newspaper editor for reporting the story. She also engaged in a public spat with her sister Mary, a married gay woman, over the issue of same-sex marriage. "In just 2 1/2 months as a declared candidate," the Los Angeles Times reported in September 2013, "Cheney has generated more controversy and national headlines … than Enzi has managed in a 40-year career, going back to his days as mayor of Gillette."
Foreign policy also proved challenging terrain for Cheney during the campaign, with Cheney expressing opposition to President Obama's request for authorization to strike Syria despite Cheney's long history of statements advocating just that. "In her role as hard-ass conservative pundit, the pro-Gitmo, pro-waterboarding Liz has long been second to none in advocating liberal use of the U.S. military," wrote Michelle Cottle for the Daily Beast in September 2013. "But as a Senate candidate, especially one looking to woo [isolationist] Tea Party types, her situation is somewhat more ticklish. … Faced with such a conundrum, what's a hawkish yet ambitious Republican gal to do? Blame it all on Obama, of course. So it is that Cheney explained that she opposed the president's Syria request because he has already cocked up the situation irretrievably with his 'amateurish approach to national security and foreign policy.' … Dishonest? Perhaps. Politically expedient? Most definitely."
Citing health issues in her family (later reports said her daughter had been diagnosed with diabetes), Cheney ultimately dropped her bid in January 2014 amid anemic poll numbers, a high-profile Cheney-family dispute over gay marriage, and a number of minor scandals that prevented her from making any headway among Republican voters in the state. "Ms. Cheney never was able to focus much on her opponent, spending much of her five-month candidacy fending off distractions to her campaign," reported the New York Times after Cheney's announcement. "A campaign meant to carry on the Cheney banner of pugnacious conservatism, especially on national security, offered a vivid reminder about the limitations of transferring political power." One November 2013 poll showed Cheney more than 50 points behind Enzi.
Keep America Safe
Cheney cofounded the neoconservative advocacy group Keep America Safe in late 2009 with the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and support from right-wing donors like Melvin Sembler. The group quickly became a lightning rod for controversy. In February 2010, it released a video that questioned the loyalty of Justice Department lawyers who had defended terrorism suspects. Defending the video, Michael Goldfarb, an adviser to the group, claimed that the lawyers targeted in the ad "have propagandized on behalf of our enemies, engaging in a worldwide smear campaign against the CIA, the U.S. military and the United States itself while we are at war."
The video was roundly criticized by conservatives and liberals. A group of conservative lawyers issued a letter stating that "such attacks" were undermining the judicial system. "Whether one believes in trial by military commission or in federal court, detainees will have access to counsel. … To delegitimize the role detainee counsel play is to demand adjudications and policymaking stripped of a full record. Whatever systems America develops to handle difficult detention questions will rely, at least some of the time, on an aggressive defense bar; those who take up that function do a service to the system."
Keep America Safe subsequently launched campaigns aimed at "saving" the controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and opposing the construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. By 2013, the group appeared to be inactive or defunct.
While at the State Department, Cheney oversaw efforts to develop regime-change strategies in places like Syria and Iran, efforts closely in line with the "war on terror" agenda developed by neoconservatives at places like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and pursued by the elder Dick Cheney.
Cheney and her father's ideological similiarities made headlines in January 2009 when a writer for Slate discovered Elizabeth's 1988 senior thesis at the library of Colorado College. Titled the "Evolution of Presidential War Powers," Cheney's thesis, according to writer Zac Frank, argued that "constitutionally and historically, presidents have virtually unchecked powers in war." Adds Frank, "Thirteen years before her father became vice president, she had symbolically authored the first legal memorandum of the Bush administration, laying out the same arguments that would eventually justify Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, wiretapping of American citizens, and, broadly, the unitary theory of the executive that shaped the Bush presidency."
From 2005 to early 2006, Cheney served as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, making her No. 2 in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The post, which she left in spring 2006 to have her fifth child, reportedly entailed actively working to develop regime-change strategies for Middle Eastern countries, mainly Syria and Iran. According to unnamed colleagues interviewed by the newspaper The Australian, within the department, she was called the "freedom agenda coordinator" or "democracy tsar."
The job was Elizabeth Cheney's second in the Bush State Department. From 2002 to 2003, she served as a deputy assistant secretary, a post she left to aid her father's vice presidential reelection campaign. Her earlier tenure, although a matter of concern among critics who regarded her as a spy within Colin Powell's State Department, ended with little fanfare. According to Todd Purdum of the New York Times, "After two years of working on projects to promote women's rights and democracy in the Arab world, she won praise from skepticalforeign service officers, the European press, Arab leaders, and prominent Democrats."
Not everyone, however, was pleased with Cheney's work. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's assistant at State, told the American Prospect that she clashed with ambassadors while visiting the Middle East: "Liz Cheney comes out to this country, and she tells the ambassador—and she doesn't outrank him—she tells the ambassador, 'You're not going in the meeting with me.' And he says, 'I'm sorry, I'm going in the meeting with you. You're not going into a meeting with the head of State without me.' And she says, 'Nope—would you like a telephone call?'"
Cheney's return to State in 2005 fueled speculation that she was pushing plans to intervene in Iran and Syria. Journalist Robert Dreyfuss wrote, "During the past 15 months, Elizabeth Cheney has met with and bolstered a gaggle of Syrian exiles, often in tandem with John Hannah and David Wurmser, top officials in the Office of the Vice President; has pressed hard for money to accelerate the administration's ever-more overt campaign for forced regime change in both Damascus and Tehran; and has overseen an increasingly discredited push for American-inspired democratic reform from Morocco to Iran."
Observers also connected Cheney with two obscure offices in the State Department that were the focus of concerns in early 2006 about the Bush administration's plans for the Middle East. On April 22, 2006, the Financial Times reported on the creation of an "Iran-Syria Operations Group" (ISOG) that purportedly reported to Cheney. Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, denied the group existed. However, other unnamed sources, including U.S. government officials and a European diplomat, assured the Financial Times that the group had in fact been established. These sources said that the group served as an interagency effort that "is supposed to coordinate with the Pentagon and other departments."
The New York Times reported that the State Department requested $85 million for a Liz Cheney-run program "for scholarships, exchange programs, radio and television broadcasts, and other activities aimed at shaking up Iran's political system." But observers were skeptical about the program's impact. Said Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.: "It sounds good to fund civil society groups, but not when you don't know who the groups are. No real group wants a direct affiliation with the United States. It will just get them into trouble with the government."
Cheney's "unpublicized" meetings with Syrian dissidents in early 2005 also spurred speculation that the administration was repeating the strategy it followed with former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who helped feed misleading information to the United States about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. The meetings were first reported in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which claimed to have received confirmation of them from the State Department. According to an Agence France Presse account, Cheney, Hannah, and several Pentagon and National Security Council officials met with the dissidents to "discuss ways of 'weakening the Syrian regime.'"
Among those participating on the Syrian side was Farid Ghadry, a U.S.-based businessman who headed the Reform Party of Syria. According to Robert Dreyfuss, Ghadry is "a pro-Israeli Syrian who's maintained ties to neoconservatives in Washington and who is close to [David] Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Middle East affairs for the Hudson Institute."
Mourhaf Jouejati, a Syria specialist at George Washington University, called Ghadry a "mini-me of Ahmed Chalabi." Jouejati also claimed that Liz Cheney, Hannah, and the Wurmsers "are the backbone for Farid Ghadry's movement. The question is, are they just seeking leverage with Syria, or is it a serious option? If it is the latter, I would be scared, because that means that they don't know what they are doing." After leaving office in 2006, Cheney remained a vocal proponent of Bush foreign policies. In early 2007, shortly after Dick Cheney publicly accused House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) of "bad behavior" for visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Washington Post ran an op-ed in which Liz Cheney argued that "conducting diplomacy with the regime in Damascus while they kill Lebanese democrats is not only irresponsible, it is shameful." She added: "Talking to the Syrians emboldens and rewards them at the expense of America and our allies in the Middle East. It hasn't and won't change their behavior. They are an outlaw regime and should be isolated."
According to the Inter Press Service (IPS), Cheney's op-ed "evoked considerable speculation [in Washington] ... [about] the balance between hawks led by the vice president and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, on the one hand, and 'realists' led by the State Department, on the other …" Wayne White, a former top State Department Middle East analyst and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, told IPS: "This could be a desperate attempt to reverse a trend that is going against [the hardliners]." Another observer, retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff under former Secretary of State Powell, told reporter Jim Lobe: "She's doing Daddy's business. It's what Powell used to say about Bush: he's got these rough edges, and Cheney knows how to rub them."
Earlier, in January 2007, Cheney wrote a sharply worded op-ed in the Post titled "Retreat Isn't an Option." The piece, which came on the heels of President Bush's controversial decision to boost troop levels in Iraq and threaten military action against Iraq's neighbors, implicitly attacked the U.S. public for weakness on the war on terror. "American troops will win if we show even one-tenth the courage here at home that they show every day on the battlefield," wrote Cheney. "And by the way, you cannot wish failure on our soldiers' mission and claim, at the same time, to be supporting the troops. It just doesn't compute."
Cheney reserved much of her invective for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), whom she argued was proving as weak-willed on Iraq as her male counterparts in Congress: "In 2007, a woman can run for president and show the same level of courage and conviction about this war many of her male colleagues have. Steel in the spine? Not so much."
The op-ed also revealed Cheney's mastery of what one commentator terms the neoconservatives' trademark "combination of overstatement and ancestor-worship." Citing the World War II-era victory rhetoric of adopted neocon deity Winston Churchill, Cheney argued that "America faces an existential threat ... We will have to fight these terrorists to the death somewhere, sometime. We can't negotiate with them or 'solve' their jihad. If we quit in Iraq now, we must get ready for a harder, longer, more deadly struggle later." She then concluded: "America deserves better. It's time for everyone—Republicans and Democrats—to stop trying to find ways for America to quit. Victory is the only option. We must have the fortitude and the courage to do what it takes. In the words of Winston Churchill, we must deserve victory. We must be in it to win."
Cheney's husband, Philip Perry, served as general counsel to the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush presidency.