Commentary

Cheney’s Deflection of the Truth

Recently former Vice President Dick Cheney had the audacity to claim the Obama administration, by reversing President George W. Bush’s policy on the harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects, has endangered American lives and opened our country to another terrorist attack. Americans would be best served by ignoring the baseless accusations of the former vice president.

Today, if America is as vulnerable as Cheney claims, the reasons are that the interrogation methods he defends have become a major recruiting tool for terrorists, and that he and his ilk diverted America’s resources away from those who attacked us on 9/11 by invading a country that did not. Regrettably, the war in Iraq was a costly distraction for which we are now paying in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

2008 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan for U.S. and NATO troops. In many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have regained control and usurped the traditional functions of a sovereign state: collecting taxes, enforcing order, and providing basic services.

Additionally, former CIA Director Michael Hayden predicted the next attack on the U.S. homeland would likely originate from the tribal areas of western Pakistan, a vast lawless region that has become a safe haven for splinter groups of the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan insurgents, and other extremist elements.

Our current problems in the region began after initial victories by the United States and the Northern Alliance in autumn 2001, when hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan to seek refuge across the border in Pakistan’s rugged northwest. Less than a year after the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush pulled most of America’s Special Operations Forces and CIA paramilitary operatives off the hunt for Osama bin Laden to prepare for a possible war in Iraq.

That redirection of American resources away from Afghanistan and Pakistan alleviated pressure on the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda forces. Today, a spreading Islamic insurgency engulfs the amorphous and ungoverned border between the two countries.

Since spring 2002, the mutilated bodies of more than 150 pro-government tribal elders have been found in northwest Pakistan’s scattered hamlets. Terrorists along the border thrive where security is thin, offering their own brand of swift justice and enacting their own visions of an Islamic state. Poverty, low education, and extremist sentiments have empowered militant groups, with whom the Afghan and Pakistani governments must now compete.

Despite what Vice President Cheney wants Americans to believe, his favored policies have neither made us safer nor limited the ability of terrorists to plan another attack.

To make a bad situation worse, not only has the war in Iraq hindered America’s operations in Afghanistan, but Iraq is now the cause celebre for jihadists worldwide, according to declassified sections of the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate.

Moreover, rebuilding Iraq has cost the United States almost $1 trillion; 4,000 dead soldiers, with thousands more crippled and traumatized. Even the celebrated “surge”—itself a dubious proposition resting on the false belief we invaded the right country—was described as “fragile and reversible” by former Commanding General of Multi-National Forces in Iraq and present Chief of Central Command, General David Petraeus.

During the Iraq war the harsh interrogation methods Cheney defends, such as electric shock, near-asphyxiation, prisoners putting the urine and feces of other people on themselves, mock executions, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment, also made America less safe.

On this subject, Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Scott Horton interviewed U.S. Air Force Major Matthew Alexander, who, through skillful interrogation that didn’t involve torture, secured information that led to the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Matthews insists, “I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda’s best recruiters if we resorted to torture.”

He added that the loss of “at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives… are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics.”

Americans should ignore Cheney’s attempt to restore his tarnished legacy. He and Bush deserve to be remembered for how the debacle in Iraq, the lost war in Afghanistan, and the harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists have all undermined the very freedom and safety his administration claimed to provide.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.