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Liars and Lunatics

One after another, they keep tumbling out: insider accounts of the Bush administration, from a high-ranking official (former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill) and a key national security aide (former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke) and now, from America’s semi-official and best-selling court reporter, Bob Woodward. All three illuminate administration policy, but more pointedly, all three give us a much fuller view of the men at the top.

George W. Bush comes off as merely appalling in these accounts. But Dick Cheney — our man in the bunker, the mystery man of the Bush White House — is revealed here. And Dick Cheney comes off as terrifying.

Moreover, it’s the people who’ve known Cheney for years who provide the most unsettling accounts, for the story they tell is of a once-sober man who over time has given himself over to obsession. O’Neill had known Cheney since the Ford administration, and Colin Powell (one of Woodward’s chief sources) since the Reagan years, but in the end, neither can recognize his old friend (in O’Neill’s case) or colleague (in Powell’s) in the silent, obsessional vice president.

In particular, the Cheney who emerges in Woodward’s tale has lost all perspective on Saddam Hussein. “Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney,” Woodward writes. “He was not the steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War.”

Woodward recounts an exhaustive CIA briefing that agency director George Tenet and his chief deputy delivered to top White House officials, intended to prove once and for all the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It fails utterly to convince Bush, chief of staff Andy Card and presidential adviser Karen Hughes that the evidence is solid. Cheney alone is satisfied. Some months later, the veep repeatedly calls Powell’s attention to the meetings in Prague between September 11 mastermind Muhammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent — meetings whose existence have never been verified.

A variation on this tale pops up in O’Neill’s account, The Price of Loyalty (written by Ron Suskind). As treasury secretary, O’Neill served on the National Security Council, and recalls that at its very first meeting — January 30, 2001, just 10 days after Bush had taken office — Iraq was already Topic A. Tenet unveiled an aerial photo of an Iraqi factory where, he alleged, circumstantial evidence suggested that chemical and biological weapons were being produced. O’Neill, who knew something about factories (he’d just retired as CEO of Alcoa), looked at the photo and saw — well, an aerial photo of a factory. But for Cheney, it was surely a WMD factory, and the vice president waved all in the room closer to see for themselves.

Cheney and his gang — his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary Doug Feith — were also increasingly certain, in the absence of all evidence, that there was a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda. (Wolfowitz, writes Woodward, “subscribed to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s notion that lack of evidence did not mean something did not exist.”) “Cheney now had an unhealthy fixation,” Woodward writes, reporting Powell’s impression. “Nearly every conversation or reference came back to al Qaeda and trying to nail the connection with Iraq.”

One mark of the true obsessive is that arguments against his position are not so much wrong as utterly beside the point — the point, the obsession, is everything. As Woodward tells it, that’s pretty much how Cheney argued with Powell when the administration debated on September 6, 2002, whether Bush should ask for another round of United Nations weapons inspections and one more Security Council ultimatum in his upcoming speech to the General Assembly. Powell argued that unilateral action would have untold consequences around the world, but “the vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein. It was as if nothing else existed.” Cheney responded that the international reaction wasn’t the issue; “Hussein and the clear threat are the issue.” Powell raised the possibility of unintended consequences; again, Cheney said that the only issue was Saddam and his threat.

If nothing else, obsessives are consistent. Woodward asked Cheney earlier this year about post-Saddam Iraq, and the failures of postwar planning. “Cheney thought it wouldn’t matter in the end,” Woodward reports — a consoling sentiment, surely, for the coalition forces and Iraqi people stuck in the muck that is Iraq today. What mattered was eliminating the threat posed by Saddam, and on that, the administration had delivered.

 

In both O’Neill’s account and Clarke’s, Cheney is a sphinx-like figure who seldom reveals the radical conservative lurking within. Woodward, who offers unattributed accounts of the debates that went on in the highest councils of war, shows us more of the inner Cheney than we’ve seen before. Still, since his method precludes direct quotation in most instances, there is nothing in Woodward’s book quite so stunning as Cheney’s response to O’Neill when the treasury secretary, an old-line deficit hawk, tries to argue Cheney out of yet another tax cut on the rich (in this instance, on dividends) shortly after the 2002 elections. As the veep sits in characteristic silence and impassivity, O’Neill runs through a string of macroeconomic arguments. Suddenly, Cheney speaks: “We won the midterms. It’s our due.”

Not just an obsessive, then: an obsessive with one hell of a sense of entitlement.

The Bush depicted in these accounts is a little obsessed, too. When U.N. weapons inspectors fail to turn up any weapons in the months before the war, he’s convinced that Saddam is simply mocking him — not, certainly, that the weapons aren’t there. As he sees it, the absence of weapons strengthens the case for war. Still, Bush is able to discern that the mess of porridge that Tenet adduces as proof positive of Saddam’s weapons cache won’t convince anyone. Not that that deterred Bush from doling out the same porridge himself.

Indeed, what defines Bush as a leader is that he repeatedly put Tenet’s case to the American people as the reason we had to go to war, though he was personally unconvinced by it. What defines Cheney is that he was the one guy in the room who thought that Tenet had connected the dots. Which is to say, the president is only a liar. The vice president is a lunatic.


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