Former vice president Richard Cheney gave his big address on national security (pdf) over at AEI last week. He covered a lot of ground, but this passage, I think, tells us quite a bit about Cheney's worldview:
If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field. And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don't stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along. Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.
So we shouldn't let the terrorists see us get "caught up in arguments" about the wisdom of our foreign policy, about whether our country should go to war, about our country's treaty obligations, about the parameters of government power under our Constitution? What is this former vice president thinking?
Does it matter if Charles Manson appreciates the fact that he got a trial instead of a summary execution? No. It does not matter what's in that twisted head of his. Same thing with bin Laden. The American military should make every effort to avoid civilian casualties even if bin Laden targets civilians. Similarly, it does not matter if bin Laden scoffs at the Geneva Convention as a sign of "weakness." The former VP does not get it. It is about us, not the terrorists.
An obsession with the mentality of the enemy (what they see; what they hope for, etc.) can distort our military and counterterrorism strategy (pdf) as well. Cheney wants to find out what bin Laden's objective is and then thwart it. I certainly agree that gathering intelligence about the enemy is useful, but Cheney seems so obsessed that he wants to thwart al-Qaeda's objectives — even if some pose no threat to the USA, and even if some of al-Qaeda's objectives are pure folly.
If the CIA told Cheney that it intercepted a message and learned that bin Laden wanted some of his men to climb Mount Everest as a propaganda ploy to somehow show the world that they can lord over the globe, one gets the feeling that Cheney wouldn't shrug at the report. Since that is what bin Laden hopes to achieve, the enemy objective must be thwarted! Quick, dispatch American GIs to the top of Everest and establish a post. Stay on the lookout for al-Qaeda and stop them no matter what! That'll show bin Laden who has the real power! Farfetched, yes, but what about the costly nation-building exercise (pdf) in Iraq? How long is that going to last? Mr. Cheney did not want to address that part of the Bush-Cheney record for some reason.
In another passage, Cheney bristles at the notion that his "unpleasant" interrogation practices have been a recruitment tool for the enemy. Cheney claims this theory ignores the fact that 9/11 happened before the torture memos were ever drafted and approved. He observes that the terrorists have never "lacked for grievances against the United States." They're evil, Cheney says, now let's talk about something else. The gist of Cheney's argument — that no post 9/11 policy can ever be counterproductive — makes no sense.
Cheney's controversial legacy will be debated for a long time. And he's smart enough to know that he may have very few defenders down the road, so he is wasting no time at all in making his own case. The problem is that his case is weak and plenty of people can see it.
For related Cato work, go here and here.