Cheney’s critics are busy sculpting the contours of a narrative that will, they hope, guide popular perceptions of the vice president’s legacy.
According to the prevailing wisdom, the issue at the center of the storm appears to be Executive Power, specifically Cheney’s attempt to buttress the power of the executive branch relative to the legislature and the judiciary.
The production of this narrative about forms of power may be accurate and important, but it may also function to obscure some significant substantive issues at the heart of the Cheney administration–not least, US foreign policy in the Middle East.
On July 9, 2007, the New York Times published an Op-Ed penned by Sean Wilentz–“Mr. Cheney’s Minority Report“–that reminded readers that Cheney was already focused on the defense of “executive prerogatives” during the Iran-Contra investigations of the Reagan era.
Mr. Cheney the congressman believed that Congress had usurped executive prerogatives. He saw the Iran-contra investigation not as an effort to get to the bottom of possible abuses of power but as a power play by Congressional Democrats to seize duties and responsibilities that constitutionally belonged to the president.
At the conclusion of the hearings, a dissenting minority report codified these views. The report’s chief author was a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael J. Malbin, who was chosen by Mr. Cheney as a member of the committee’s minority staff. Another member of the minority’s legal staff, David S. Addington, is now the vice president’s chief of staff…
The Reagan administration, according to the report, had erred by failing to offer a stronger, principled defense of what Mr. Cheney and others considered its full constitutional powers…
The report made a point of invoking the framers. It cited snippets from the Federalist Papers — like Alexander Hamilton’s remarks endorsing “energy in the executive” — in order to argue that the president’s long-acknowledged prerogatives had only recently been usurped by a reckless Democratic Congress.
Above all, the report made the case for presidential primacy over foreign relations. It cited as precedent the Supreme Court’s 1936 ruling in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation, which referred to the “exclusive power of the president as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations.”
Wilentz is, of course, correct to suggest that the Cheney’s “minority report” concerned itself with issues of constitutional authority. And Cheney is undoubtedly committed to enhancing the power of the presidency.
But Cheney’s legacy cannot be reduced to his views on presidential authority.
There is also the substance of US foreign policy.
It’s about the war, stupid!
The war in Iraq. De-Baathification and the advent of Shiite political dominance in Iraq. The potential military intervention in Iran. The extraordinary attempt to remake the balance of power in the Gulf and the larger Middle East.
And the escalation of Great Power rivalry between the US and Russia.
Cheney’s legacy is not (only) about the accumulation of formal power; it is about the exercise of power in extraordinary geopolitical strategic ventures.
Wilensky doesn’t mention it, but the minority report on Iran-Contra, for example, also weighed in on the substance of foreign policy, including US relations with Israel and Iran.
The potential geopolitical importance of Iran for the United States would be obvious to anyone who looks at a map. Despite Iran’s importance, the United States was taken by surprise when the Shah fell in 1979, because it had not developed an adequate human intelligence capability there. Our hearings have established that essentially nothing had been done to cure this failure by the mid-1980’s. Then, the United States was approached by Israel in 1985 with a proposal that the United States acquiesce in some minor Israeli arms sales to Iran. This proposal came at a time when the United States was already considering the advisability of such sales. For long term, strategic reasons, the United States had to improve relationships with at least some of the currently important factions in Iran….
The Iran initiative involved two governments that had sharp differences between them. There were also very sharp internal divisions in both Iran and the United States about how to begin narrowing the differences between the two countries. In such a situation, the margin between narrow failure and success can seem much wider after the fact than it does during the discussions. While the initial contacts developed by Israel and used by the United States do not appear likely to have led to a long-term relationship, we cannot rule out the possibility that negotiations with the Second Channel might have turned out differently. At this stage, we never will know what might have been.
This report appears to suggest that Cheney was once interesting in improving relationships with factions of the incumbent Iranian regime–a position that he continued to defend during the 1990s.
Did Cheney do everything in his power to enhance presidential authority, to say nothing of his own personal power? Absolutely.
But Cheney also took the US into a war with Iraq that folks like Al Gore now call “an utter disaster, this was the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States.”
You wouldn’t even know that the US ever went to war with Iraq to judge from the recent Washington Post four-part series, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.”
The Post series makes almost no mention of Iraq!
“Part 1” of the series–a backgrounder on Cheney–says only this about Iraq:
A shooting accident in Texas, and increasing gaps between his rhetoric and events in Iraq, have exposed him to ridicule and approval ratings in the teens.
The other 3 parts say less about Iraq.
Like Part 2 of the series–“Pushing the Envelope on Presidential Power“–takes up the same constitutional themes about the formal rights of executive privilege emphasized by Wilentz in his New York Times Op-Ed.
Part 1 of the Post series promises to a substantive look at particular policies, but the examples are drawn from domestic affairs:
Cheney has served as gatekeeper for Supreme Court nominees, referee of Cabinet turf disputes, arbiter of budget appeals, editor of tax proposals and regulator in chief of water flows in his native West.
The Post offers supplements that include a profile of “key players” identified as a “Cast of Characters.”
Lots of Cheney aides are profiled–including his top legal adviser David S. Addington and former domestic policy adviser Cesar Conda.
No mention is made of any of Cheney’s top foreign policy advisers. On foreign policy, the Post never gets beyond Brian V. McCormack, a young man who once served as Cheney’s “personal aide” and progressed to assignments in the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq and then on the White House staff.
There is no mention of the current Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, John P. Hannah. [Profile here; In a report from the early 1990s when Hannah served as Deputy Director of Research under Martin Indyk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hannah was identified as “specializing in Soviet Policy in the Middle East.” (“Restoring the Balance: U.S. Strategy and the Gulf Crisis: An Initial Report of The Washington Institute’s Strategic Study Group,” 1991, p.44)]
And, more to the point, there is no mention of David Wurmser, Cheney’s top Middle East adviser.
Have you not met the Wurmsers?
You really should.
David Wurmser (formerly of the American Enterprise Institute) is married to Meyrav Wurmser (of the Hudson Institute). Both wrote Ph.D. Dissertations during the 1990s.
Here is a small taste that give a sense of their interests:
David Wurmser, “The Evolution of Israeli Grand Strategy, Strategy and Tactics and the Confluence with Classic Democratic Philosophy” (Johns Hopkins University, 1990).
Meyrav Wurmser, “Ideas and Foreign Policy: The Case of the Israeli Likud Party” (George Washington University, 1998).
My hunch is that Cheney isn’t primarily interested in the Wurmser family for their ideas about the US constitution and executive privilege.
For all of Cheney’s influence as the water czar from Wyoming, the vice president’s legacy cannot be fully understood in terms of either domestic policy or formal constitutional rights issues.
The most enduring contours of Cheney’s legacy may well reside in the Middle East.
But you wouldn’t know it from recent, premature efforts to “remember” Cheney.