Monday, November 7, 2005

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The pushback on Dick Cheney

One of the mantras on this blog from day one has been the excessive influence that Vice President Richard B. Cheney has played in the foreign policymaking process. This is not to say that a Vice President should have no influence -- merely that Cheney had his thumb so hard on the scale that the interagency NSC process was fatally compromised.

Dana Priest and Robin Wright have a front-pager in the Washington Post on the proposed amendment to prevent detainee abuse suggesting that Cheney's thumb is not as heavy as it used to be:

Increasingly, however, Cheney's positions are being opposed by other administration officials, including Cabinet members, political appointees and Republican lawmakers who once stood firmly behind the administration on all matters concerning terrorism.

Personnel changes in President Bush's second term have added to the isolation of Cheney, who previously had been able to prevail in part because other key parties to the debate -- including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers -- continued to sit on the fence.

But in a reflection of how many within the administration now favor changing the rules, Elliot Abrams, traditionally one of the most hawkish voices in internal debates, is among the most persistent advocates of changing detainee policy in his role as the deputy national security adviser for democracy, according to officials familiar with his role.

At the same time Rice has emerged as an advocate for changing the rules to "get out of the detainee mess," said one senior U.S. official familiar with discussions. Her top advisers, along with their Pentagon counterparts, are working on a package of proposals designed to address all controversial detainee issues at once, instead of dealing with them on a piecemeal basis.

Cheney's camp is a "shrinking island," said one State Department official who, like other administration officials quoted in this article, asked not to be identified because public dissent is strongly discouraged by the White House.

The report goes on to describe the lengths to which Cheney's camp is going to maintain the upper hand in the game of bureaucratic politics:

Beside personal pressure from the vice president, Cheney's staff is also engaged in resisting a policy change. Tactics included "trying to have meetings canceled ... to at least slow things down or gum up the works" or trying to conduct meetings on the subject without other key Cabinet members, one administration official said. The official said some internal memos and e-mail from the National Security Council staff to the national security adviser were automatically forwarded to the vice president's office -- in some cases without the knowledge of the authors.

For that reason, Rice "wanted to be in all meetings," said a senior State Department official.

Andrew Sullivan has more -- a lot more.

This issue, by the way, also raises some interesting questions for realists -- the flavor of the month in critical foreign policy circles. Consider Cheney's explanation for why the proposed limitations on interrogation would hamper U.S. national security, according to Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff:

Last Tuesday, Senate Republicans were winding up their weekly luncheon in the Capitol when the vice president rose to speak. Staffers were quickly ordered out of the room—what Cheney had to say was for senators only. Normally taciturn, Cheney was uncharacteristically impassioned, according to two GOP senators who did not want to be on the record about a private meeting. He was very upset over the Senate's overwhelming passage of an amendment that prohibits inhumane treatment of terrorist detainees. Cheney said the law would tie the president's hands and end up costing "thousands of lives." He dramatized the point, conjuring up a scenario in which a captured Qaeda operative, another Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, refuses to give his interrogators details about an imminent attack. "We have to be able to do what is necessary," the vice president said, according to one of the senators who was present.

Now, if you're a realist, this should be an easy call if you accept Cheney's assertion -- aggressive interrogations yield useful intelligence. Removing this option might preserve some soft power and demonstrate grater respect for international law, but neither of those things should matter in realpolitik world anyway.


UPDATE: Daniel Benjamin has more on Cheney's role in national security policymaking in Slate.

Oh, and just to be clear -- Cheney's oversized role in this does not mean that I believe Cheney is the main culprit for U.S. missteps in either Iraq or interrogation policy. The responsibility for those policies -- and the process that abetted them -- lies with the president.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, now that I have everyone's attention, let's highlight one more fissure this kind of issue generates among conservatives. On the one hand there are the Hamiltonians who place a great deal of trust in the executive branch to execute policy in a good faith manner. On the other hand there are Madisonians who inherently distruct executive power and wish to see limitations placed on its use.

If you study foreign policy, there are many compelling reasons to prefer the former approach -- but I'm starting to have great sympathy for Madison in recent years.

posted by Dan on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM


This is to insure the Vice President doesn't run for President. Along with the Flame game.

posted by: Huggy on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Political theater. Cheney can walk off stage with the stench of torture following him, Condi (or whomever the heir apparent is) can step up in time for 08.

Wait for more carefully staged disagreements showing that Cheney is to blame for all of the other disasters in the Iraq war. Maybe for failing to catch bin Laden, too.

posted by: Fishbane on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

"Now, if you're a realist, this should be an easy call -- aggressive interrogations yield useful intelligence."

I don't believe you, and I don't believe that you have any statistical evidence to prove this claim.

posted by: Steve on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]


Not nearly the "easy call" for realists that you claim. What's more likely: aggressive interrogations leade to:

(a) the detainee yielding useful information


(b) the detainee telling the interrogrator whatever he/she wants to hear, whether true or not, in order to stop the aggressive interrogation

posted by: irprof on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, refuses to give his interrogators details about an imminent attack."

How is it, is it, known that the Mohammed knows an of an imminent attack? Of those prisoners tortured, how many were even supposed (weeks, months, years after their capture) to know of an imminent attack?

Bad cases make bad law. And policy. It's a policy were considering--a new government function, with its own set of hiring and training rules and prescribed responsibilities, its own exemptions from a range of established laws and procedures, including those of publicity and accoutability. The policy in question would create (has created?) a legalized fifth column that endangers democratic forms of governance.

Cheney's hypothetical is the seemingly needful breach in the dyke that brings the flood. What we know from our experience is that Cheney's policy of torture lost the U.S. its reputation for probity and humanity, and that that substantially hurt its interests.* Whether his policy brought any gains whatever--prevented any attacks--I rather doubt. If the torturers had a good story, they'd have leaked it by now.

Cheney has the demeanor of a tough-minded realist. But in reality, his view of how the world works is delusory, and has only intensified the dangers we face.**

It's important that we have, or at any rate act upon, the right fears.

*Headline today: U.S. standing in Iraq plummeted, insurgents' rose, right after the news from Abu Ghraib broke.

**On the intensification of the danger under the ministrations of the clowns now in charge of our fate, see Richard Posner in the current New Republic.

And BTW, it would appear that either some folks at Chicago or at Fletcher recently made a considerable error of judgment. I'm betting that as the years ahead unfold, it won't be the Midwest where vindication is to be found, but rather New England. It's gratifying that talent and industry do get their due reward. Congratulations!

posted by: Fearful on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Wonder if anyone has ever done a randomized trial to test torture effectiveness. Take 200 prisoners, randomly assign them to two groups, torture 100 of them, and use standard techniques on the other 100. Add controls for identity of interagator, anything else you can observe above the prisoners, etc. Maybe do the experiments over time to see what happens, etc.

Or is the concept of doing such an experiment just too alien to those inclined to torture, and too offensive to those disinclined to do so? Or maybe such experiments have been done, and they're just secret.

posted by: wml on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Even accepting that torture yields useful info, I still don't see why one should accept Cheney's argument. Assume you're a district CIA head. You capture a guy in a ticking bomb scenario, and you are positive he has evidence, but he won't give it up. If torture is illegal, you can *still* torture him - should he actually have useful info and give it up, I'm sure a jury would take that into account and not send the district head to jail.

If he doesn't have useful info, or if torture turns out to be an ineffective way of soliciting the info, than a man has been tortured for no reason, and whoever ordered it should rightfully go to jail.

Admittedly, I'm more or less unaware of any ticking bomb scenario in US history where a major incident could have been stopped using torture and only torture, so this type of "bad case", as noted above, is not really useful.

posted by: cure on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

"Cheney's policy of torture lost the U.S. its reputation for probity and humanity"

I lose respect when the attempt to protect the symbolic leader of the Party becomes so obvious. Cheney has or makes no policy;has or makes no decisions; has no real responsibility or power.

This is the Bush presidency.

posted by: bob mcmanus on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

I'd like to challenge your statement,"This is not to say that a Vice President should have no influence".

Technically the VP should have no influence... sort like a spare tire in the trunk.

posted by: Chris on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

That isn't what Dan said. Let's restore the underlined part you cut out of your quote:
"Now, if you're a realist, this should be an easy call if you accept Cheney's assertion -- aggressive interrogations yield useful intelligence."
It is Cheney that is saying that "aggressive interrogations yield useful intelligence". Dan is pointing out that if you're a realist and if you agree with Cheney then it should be an easy call.

posted by: Jacob on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

All this prattle about "Cheney's foreign policy" assumes it to have been a failure, when in fact it has been an outstanding success (if it was his). Some day Americans will look back at the Second Iraqi War as they do now on the Barbary War or the liberation of Grenada. It hasn't the magnitude to rank in the list, WWI, WWII, Korea & Vietnam, and never will have. It's more like the Spanish-American War, I guess, though not as costly in soldiers (most of whom died of fever). It is much more important, however, than our numerous Central American excursions in the 20th century, having changed the way of life in Mesopotamia and started a chain reaction everywhere else in the Middle East. We may not have removed the yoke of the Koran from these people, but we sawed half way through it. Viva America!

posted by: exguru on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]


There are numerous flaws with the scenario.

1. If the attack is imminent, then KSM knows he just has to hold out for a while, no matter what they do.

2. If the attack is imminent, then KSM knows he can just provide red herrings, which will end interrogation. By the time the red herring is exposed, it will be too late.

3. The torturers, in order to avoid scenario 2, may opt to continue torturing no matter what they get. In which case, the prisoner is likely to die.

4. Some portion of those in scenario 3 will be people who never actually knew anything, and thus could never provide the magic information which would satisfy the torturers.

Further, the concern that "hands would be tied" is absurd.

If torture is illegal *now*, yet the US is engaged in it, then clearly no hands have been tied.

If McCain's limitations were passed, this would not change.

Regardless of what the laws are, those in the field will do as they see fit. If the situation truly is dire, and the suspect really knows something, then the interrogator can weigh their odds of getting lenient treatment in court (not that it'd ever get to court) and their odds of getting a Presidential pardon.

The guy who tortures KSM and finds out about an imminent dirty bomb attack on DC, which turns out to be true, and which is quickly dispatched? Hero, forced to do the unspeakable by his wily foe. Pardoned.

The guy who claw-hammers the knuckles and knees of any old prisoner he feels like? Not hero. Bastard. If it ever actually comes to a real trial (rather than a winking military slap-on-the-wrist show trial), not pardoned.

posted by: Jon H on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

"Political theater. Cheney can walk off stage with the stench of torture following him, Condi (or whomever the heir apparent is) can step up in time for 08."

Which could only be the work of the slacker media.

The idea that the National Security Advisor had no role in anything simply doesn't pass the laugh test. Either she was actively complicit, or she let it happen on her watch.

Likewise, she was certainly caught up in the Plame thing, but the media tiptoes around that.

posted by: Jon H on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Being a realist I can easily see what effect the 'no torture' policy will have on terrorists -- ROFLMAO.

posted by: bill on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

It's all torture and no punishment with these Bushistas. It's been over three years...why hasn't KSM been tried, convicted, and executed? Or at least tried, if you're antsy about predicting results. There hasn't been a single military tribunal (to my knowledge), which leads me to believe that the initial post-9/11 controversy about tribunals was a ruse designed to get our attention away from what they really wanted to do, which was torture people.

posted by: Respondon on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

It seems to me that traditional foreign policy realism would be much more offended by a policy process dominated by the Vice President's office than by restrictions on interrogation techniques.

The latter, after all, are broadly consistent with longstanding American practice. The former is a novel way of doing business after over two centuries of history. It implies in theory -- and in practice this is evident -- a very weak President, weak in the sense that decisions traditionally made in the Oval Office have been delegated to an official with no institutional means of implementing them and who cannot be held accountable if they damage American interests.

Leaving accountability aside, the fact that every policy decision made under the Vice President's influence has to be implemented by someone else practically guarantees inadequate follow-up. The Vice President has no resources with which to make sure that policy directions he has influenced are pursued as he intended and are adjusted as problems arise. Surely it is not necessary to document the problems resulting from this with respect to the treatment of detainees.

Foreign policy realism rests if anything more firmly on the assumption of a strong President than idealism does. Idealism -- the use of foreign policy to express American values rather than pursue American interests -- can be practiced perfectly well when foreign policy is dominated by Congress; realism, because it sometimes requires defying public opinion or acting on subjects to which the public is indifferent, requires a President who inspires enough trust to do unpopular things without being badly weakened thereby. And in fact the two modern Presidents who most actively pursued explicitly realist foreign policy -- Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon -- dominated the policymaking process personally. Franklin Roosevelt did so on those issues he thought most important; Truman did so through his Secretary of State.

None of these Presidents would have thought to go farther than to allow his Vice President to occasionally attend important meetings. The younger Bush is different, because he has to be; largely ignorant of foreign affairs when he took office and by nature intellectually lazy, Bush was always going to have to delegate most foreign policy work to someone. It might have been the Secretary of State; it could have been the National Security Adviser or even (as on many important issues facing the Clinton administration) the Secretary of the Treasury. Bush chose to delegate to his Vice President, who in turn left many vital questions to be decided in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or (as on North Korea, Venezuela, and a number of other questions) not decided at all.

Foreign policy realism is not, of course, ultimately about any administration's organization chart. The process forced on this administration by the limitations of the President, though, was always highly likely to screw up somewhere -- a good reason nothing like it had ever been seen in any previous administration, and is not likely to appear in any future one.

posted by: Zathras on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

The notion that torture cannot be useful strikes me as similar to the notion that medical research on animals cannot be useful. It would be nice if either were true, but really they seem to be a way of allowing someone to oppose a policy (torture or medical research on animals) and claim that their approach is better.

If you have to oppose torture, doing so on moral grounds is the strongest argument, and a claim that it doesn't work strikes me as dishonest.

posted by: erg on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]


The 'yoke of the Koran'? Puh-lease. The Yoke of the Bible is just as bad. Most of the torturers in the US Military are Christians. Muslims and Chritians deserve each other...

posted by: Aaron on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Can we stop the gnashing of teeth over what seems to me a pretty cut and dry issue. We should not be torturing anyone, anywhere for any reason whatsoever. Period. End of story. The men and women who have died for this country do not deserve to have their name sullied by this.

posted by: greg wirth on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Zathras, it sure took you a lot of blather to say the VP can make policy, but he can't enforce it. Seems self-contradictory to me.

posted by: Larry on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

If you're a realist and if you believe Dick Cheney? #1 can't possibly accord with #2, Mr. Drezner. Might as well have said, if you're a realist and if you believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, torture is okay. Even all but the least credible GOP Senators were unmoved by Mr. Cheney's personal testimony to them. And that's really saying all that needs to be said on that topic.

Try again, minus the straw man.

How about, if you're a realist, you realize the incredible damage this issue has done to America abroad exceeds any of Cheney's false but constant exhortations of our lesser angels.

posted by: bob on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

"All this prattle about "Cheney's foreign policy" assumes it to have been a failure, when in fact it has been an outstanding success (if it was his). Some day Americans will look back at the Second Iraqi War as they do now on the Barbary War or the liberation of Grenada. "

I can no longer distinguish between sick humor and parody, and mainstream Republican thinking. So tell me -- is this a joke, or what?

And ummmm.... liberation of Grenada?!?

posted by: sglover on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

Exguru --
Actually, we replaced a secular/nationalist government in Iraq with a Shiite fundamentalist government with close ties to Iran.

posted by: Alan in SF on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

'All this prattle about "Cheney's foreign policy" assumes it to have been a failure'

Sorry to be a broken record but doesn't anyone find it disturbing that Cheney even has a foreign policy? He is supposed to me mute, a standby, a spare to be employed only in the event the President is unable to act!

It seems Republicans have twice succeeded in getting White House politicians leading the country without the trouble of winning a mandate to do so!

posted by: Chris on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

tsk tsk ... blaming Cheney. have you all forgotten? it's all Bill's fault.

posted by: Dobbie on 11.07.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

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