Cheney at West Point: There He Goes Again

Vice President Cheney gave the Commencement speech at West Point on Saturday, and on this Memorial Day Weekend, I'm happy to join him in his conclusion: "Godspeed to the United States Military Academy Class of 2007," 70 percent of whom, according to the VP's speech, now go into combat. I'll even praise Cheney for not suggesting that those who question the conduct of the Iraq war are unpatriotic. He was almost gracious in stating: "Down in Washington, D.C., we air differences and argue back and forth on matters of policy. It's always that way, and there's nothing wrong with it."

Nonetheless, the speech was, at bottom, an artifice. As a stylistic matter, it was larded up with numerous insider references to persons and places at West Point. If one did not know the identity of the speaker, one would have guessed that it was a decorated veteran officer, returning to the place where his glorious military career began, rather than the beneficiary of five deferments during the Vietnam-era draft who had "other priorities" than military service when his generation was called. (To be clear, I don't fault the young Cheney for seeking those deferments or setting those priorities; I do fault the old Cheney for wrapping himself in the flag and demanding sacrifices of others that he himself was unwilling to make.)

But more important than the speech's stylistic bravado was its substantive shamelessness. Some news stories have already called attention to Cheney's derision of captured "killers" who "demand the protections of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution," while they themselves fight by no recognized rules of civilization. On this point I'll only say that even if one thought that norms of humane treatment of captives were solely about reciprocity, we might want to obey procedural niceties like those of the Geneva Conventions and the Constitution for no other reason than so we can sort out the killers from the innocent civilians who can get and have been swept up in the fog of war.

The real whopper in the speech was that the Vice President continues to link Iraq to 9/11. He said:
The terrorists know what they want and they will stop at nothing to get it. By force and intimidation, they seek to impose a dictatorship of fear, under which every man, woman, and child lives in total obedience to their ideology. Their ultimate goal is to establish a totalitarian empire, a caliphate, with Baghdad as its capital. They view the world as a battlefield and they yearn to hit us again. And now they have chosen to make Iraq the central front in their war against civilization.

In Iraq today, the al Qaeda network that struck America is one of the elements trying to destroy a democratic government. They are surging their capabilities, attacking Iraqi and American forces, and killing innocent civilians. America is fighting this enemy in Iraq because that is where they have gathered. We are there because, after 9/11, we decided to deny terrorists any safe haven. We are there because, having removed Saddam Hussein, we promised not to allow another dictator to rise in his place.

And we are there because the security of this nation depends on a successful outcome. The war on terror does not have to be an endless war. But to prevail in the long run, we must remove the conditions that inspire such blind, prideful hatred that drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and come to kill us on 9/11.
Think about that: "America is fighting this enemy in Iraq because that is where they have gathered." If the Vice President had even the slightest smidgen of humility, he would have left that line out, don't you think? Because, after all, "they" only gathered in Iraq after "we," at the VP's vehement behest, created the conditions that made it possible. That doesn't necessarily mean Cheney is wrong going forward. The war was a terrible idea in the first place and the civilian leadership badly bungled occupation planning, but still, it is what it is now, and the people who say that our precipitous withdrawal could make things still worse might be right. Those directly responsible for the initial misjudgments would have more, which is to say any, credibility in making that point, however, if they acknowledged their prior failures. But that's not the stuff of fine speeches, I suppose.