Yes, I know that Dick Cheney is back. Yes, I know that he’s co-written an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal. Does it matter? Should we pay attention to what he says? Is there something we can learn from him? Why does his reappearance antagonize us so?
We are fortunate to have a series of reflections to guide us. In addition to E.J. Dionne’s piece here, Mark Danner’s recent article in the New York Review of Books is especially good. He draws upon a wealth of works: Barton Gellman’s Angler, Cheney’s own autobiography, the recent documentary film The World According to Dick Cheney. We could add to this list as well Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, which is of course about Rumsfeld but which discloses a shared attitude or stance. The elements of that stance can be extracted and analyzed rather easily: someone somewhere has half-read Machiavelli, maybe picked up some Carl Schmitt along the way, but nothing is examined through comprehensively or applied thoughtfully. I would call the first element something like heroic realism: simply put, Cheney doesn’t think he sees the political world that differently from the rest of us. He does think he has the courage and resolution to speak and act when others shrink from doing so. In his mind, the rest of us are stuck in the democratic rut of seeking confirmation and approval. Cheney on the other hand unconsciously invokes Machiavelli when he says with regard to the invasion of Iraq, “it was more important to be successful than it was to be loved” (quoted in Danner, 55).
And what did “success” look like? In his mind: resolute, overwhelming action. This is the second element: Cheney’s so-called “one percent doctrine:” if there’s a one percent chance of an attack against us, we must treat it as a certainty. Rumsfeld’s theological hair-splitting was a front for a much grosser logic: “It’s not about our analysis… It’s about our response” (quoted in Danner, 55). This leads to a third pseudo-Machiavellian precept, about the so-called “demonstration effect” of overwhelming force. For Cheney, the advantage of a powerful and highly visible attack was in its capacity to prevent further action. The initial American attack on Iraq – so-called “shock and awe” – is an embodiment of this principle: even if none of the people responsible for 9/11 were eliminated in the offensive, its visibility was supposed to stun our enemies into submission. Cheney actually believed this, and apparently still believes that overt and visible violence has the power to intimidate as much as it does provoke.
In reality, it’s fair to say that Cheney is a profoundly poor student of politics. Machiavelli wisely counseled the Prince to pursue fear rather than love. But he also advised him to above all avoid being hated. The hyperkinetic approach to strategy does have demonstration effects, but they’re obviously the opposite of what Cheney had in mind. Every act has an afterlife, every word and deed in our time is stuck on endless repeat, becoming subject to new interpretations every time it cycles round. Events mean something different than they did a decade ago. They also mean something different – then and now – to Arab publics and American citizens. Cheney’s tough-guy realism in fact belies blissful naivete: essentially, those who experienced shock and awe, those who witnessed the American invasion were supposed to realize – rationally, as it were – that the fight was lost, and that they should put down their weapons and go home. This evinces a faith in reason that any true Machiavellian would find risible. We know what happened: shock and awe was followed by “Mission Accomplished.” The invasion was followed by chaos and civil war, which was followed by disclosures about GTMO and human pyramids at Abu Ghraib.
The meaning of such events must escape the modern Prince, who lives in a world with al Jazeera and Twitter. He can’t control the world of appearances: they have a life of their own, and they inspire actions that can’t be reduced to instrumental rationality. Every image from the war appears once, twice, countless times, continuing to haunt us. Cheney’s spectral reappearance is like one of those ghosts. Like Hamlet’s father, he’d like to appear to us and command us to decide and act. But unlike the ghost of Old Hamlet, he’s not the victim. We are. We are the ones condemned to (re)live the bad infinity imposed by the Bush administration’s colossal and tragic blunder. That world is worse than a bad dream. For now, Cheney’s spectral presence is a reminder that the trauma won’t go away.