Eight Years after 9/11 The Bloody Legacy of Cheney's Failures

After 9/11, Dick Cheney took the reins in America. The 'war on terror' was his idea, and it led to real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and to the torture he approved and defends. While Cheney is writing a memoir to influence how people see his role, the rest of the world would just prefer to get on with cleaning up his mess -- with him out of the picture.
While Cheney warns of a "what if" future, many are forced to deal with the bloody wounds of his devastating past.

While Cheney warns of a "what if" future, many are forced to deal with the bloody wounds of his devastating past.


Dick Cheney has bought a house in McLean, an upscale community in the largely rural state of Virginia. Although it's conveniently located near Washington, DC, it somehow seems far removed from America's bustling capital. Eight US presidents have been born in this state, and it just might be that Cheney sees himself as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them since, after all, he has also served as president -- for three and a half years. Or perhaps it'd be more accurate to say that George W. Bush served as president under Cheney, looking after odds and ends, while Cheney took care of the big picture. Dick was responsible for America's strategy in the 21st century.

Cheney is busy writing a memoir. Given the fact that he is a highly secretive man notorious for keeping a tight lid on things, this has raised some eyebrows in America. He is someone who asked questions or silently listened and took notes for his personal use after many meetings in the White House, at the Pentagon and at CIA offices. He is the ultimate insider -- and someone who places little value on recognition from the general public.

In writing a memoir, a man like this is motivated by more than a high opinion of himself. The little that we know about the memoirs comes from those of his faithful followers who have been given the green light to leak that Cheney is using his memoir to set straight a few things that he thinks have been skewed. He blames the unfortunate turn of events of the past few years on George W. Bush, the man who greatly disappointed him during his second term in office by ignoring his advice. As Cheney reportedly sees it, Bush showed moral weakness and failed to realize that the focus of all considerations needed to stay on the "war on terror." This was an unforgivable error of historic proportions, which -- as Cheney has been saying publicly for months -- Barack Obama is prolonging out of ignorance.

Explaining Why You Don't Have to Explain

The war on terror was Cheney's idea. Since 9/11, it has guided America's interactions with the rest of the world, and it became a real war in the real world twice. Starting the war in Afghanistan was essentially a political no-brainer; it has been viewed as a good and just war that unfortunately hasn't lead to the desired results, as the US is slowly beginning to realize. Cheney pushed relentlessly for the war on Iraq and manipulated the justifications for military intervention. From the very beginning, this has been a bad war -- and the wrong war. And, although he pushed hard for it, the war on Iran's nuclear facilities has never materialized.

Now he is busy defending his creation. Since 9/11, he has also been a particularly driven man. In his own imagination, he was chosen to educate his country, to make sure that it really understands the deadly peril that will arise if terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons. Since the murderous attacks on America eight years ago, he has developed a 'one percent' theory that goes like this: If there is even a remote possibility that individual countries or groups could pose a danger, the US must act as if this threat were already firmly established.

Today, now that the world knows so much about him, Cheney is a political leper. They know about his fondness for expanding presidential powers, the joy he takes in manipulating intelligence agencies and his support for using methods of torture like waterboarding. They know that Cheney is convinced that people like him should never admit errors or mistakes and believes that such people would be wise to give no explanations for their actions. "Never apologize," he says. "Never Explain." It's seems rather strange, then, that Cheney is writing this memoir.

'You Never Know Where You Are Going to End'

Still, it's understandable that Cheney's doctrine found widespread support and appeared increasingly plausible, at least for a while. The 19 attackers of 9/11 had prepared to hijack four airplanes and fly them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill -- that is, right into the heart of America. Three of the planes found their targets; the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after heroic passengers stormed the cockpit and overwhelmed the hijackers.

Roughly 3,000 people died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. But the attacks also served as a sudden and horrible wake-up call for the world and, above all, for America. There was to be no "end of history," as author Francis Fukuyama had predicted after communism's collapse. Now, the world's lone superpower was vulnerable and forced to deal with more confusion and different threats than it had during the Cold War.

When the White House recovered from its post-9/11 state of shock, the president and his vice president summoned their advisers to countless meetings to hammer out a strategy against terrorism. If for nothing else than to calm the public, they urgently needed to convey the message that they were acting with prudence and determination. At such historic moments, hastily formulated responses are as risky as they are unavoidable. The situation has perhaps been expressed best in a laconic statement attributed to George Kennan, an American diplomat, political scientist and historian, who came up with the strategy of containment during an age of intense rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. "You know where you begin," Kennan reportedly said. "You never know where you are going to end."

Cracking the 'Delta of Terrorism'

Today, the world knows that even more could have been begun after 9/11.

Most strategy meetings following 9/11 were matters for high-ranking officials, but others were not. It was not until years later that word leaked of a group of intellectuals and professors who went by the highly optimistic name of "Bletchley II." This moniker was coined in reference to Bletchley Park, an estate in England that became famous during World War II because it housed a team of mathematicians and cryptographers who cracked the code of the German war machine.

Christopher DeMuth had something similar in mind when he convened the post-9/11 group. At the time, DeMuth was the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that is home to the elite of the Republican Party. This is where Cheney has delivered (and still delivers) his rare key note speeches, which attract a great deal of attention. When it comes to politics, DeMuth and Cheney are definitely on the same page.

Bletchley II aimed to crack the code of the terrorists under Osama bin Laden. The results were summed up in a document entitled "Delta of Terrorism." The delta part refers to a triad that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two countries where most of the 19 hijackers came from; the third country is Iran.

The group thought hard about the prospects for regime change in these key countries, two of which -- Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- have been among America's main allies in the Middle East for several years. According to the group's final assessment, such an objective would be desirable but unfeasible, and the same held true for Iran. Cheney, though, felt that deciding against intervention was a mistake. Likewise, at the time, no one knew how ambitiously the mullahs were pursuing nuclear weapons.

But the group thought differently when it came to Iraq. As DeMuth told historian Bob Woodward for his 2006 book "State of Denial": "We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable. He was a gathering threat -- the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat." Such a conclusion must have been music to White House ears.

And so America fought the "war on terror." Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, commented wryly that this was paramount to the Allies' declaring war on the blitzkrieg -- the Nazi's revolutionary form of motorized warfare -- rather than on Nazi Germany itself. As he saw it, terror was a tactic -- and not an individual that can be fought.

But Saddam Hussein was an individual, a dictator that the world believed was capable of just about anything, including producing weapons of mass destruction and passing them on to terrorist groups. And Osama bin Laden was an individual, as well, who could be hunted down in Afghanistan.

The Lessons of Failure

Today, America is reducing its involvement in Iraq, a development which is seen as a step forward. Still, a new wave of attacks is sweeping over the country, although it's difficult to say whether this is a precursor to civil war between Sunnis and Shiites or whether it means that al-Qaida has become more active again. The step forward -- at least as far as Washington is concerned -- is that hardly any more US troops are among the attacks' victims.

Things have also taken a turn for the worse in Afghanistan. While the country held elections that were marred by corruption and vote buying, a large number of NATO troops have died -- and the alliance has suffered over 300 casualties this year alone. The Taliban is showing its strength by launching attacks in the heart of Kabul. After almost eight years of war, there are few signs of stability or reconstruction.

If the entire mission continues to stagnate over the coming months, the Obama administration may have to consider withdrawing US troops. This would prove to be at least as difficult as it was in Iraq given the fact that war and terrorism have become parts of everyday life in this part of Asia and made this volatile region less safe than it has ever been.

In the final analysis, failure at war serves as a great mentor to democracies. Failure was the main reason why Bush turned his back on Cheney's advice -- and why America turned its back on them both.

When former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- the master of realistic, cold-blooded foreign policy -- was once asked why he supported the war against Saddam Hussein, he gave this elucidating answer: "Because Afghanistan was not enough."

'Afghanistan Was Not Enough'

Afghanistan wasn't enough because the first part of the war on the Taliban was easy to win. Perhaps Afghanistan would have been enough if Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had been captured. But, instead, the wound continued to bleed. For America, the tragedy is that both al-Qaida leaders escaped capture.

But what if the rich Saudi Arabian and his lieutenant, the Egyptian surgeon, had been killed or imprisoned? Such "what if" questions are popular in America; they're flights of fancy that have the advantage of easily transcending the logic of reality. And history could have always turned out differently. But how?

Nobody argues that this would have prevented the war in Iraq. But, at the same time, there is no doubt that the ability of these two top al-Qaida operatives to elude their pursuers accelerated preparations for the war on Baghdad.

In the end, since the good war in Afghanistan was not enough, America fought a bad war against Saddam Hussein. Viewed from that perspective, all this talk about weapons of mass destruction is really nothing more than smoke and mirrors, backed up by the administration's manipulation of CIA intelligence to justify the war. The ideological rhetoric of the "end of tyranny" and "stamping out evil in the world" is cast in a new light, as merely neoconservative hot air. America had been humiliated; now others had to be humiliated, too.

The Cheney Legacy

Humiliation can be an overwhelming impulse when 3,000 people die. Humiliation cries out for revenge, for retaliation. But, then, a country like the United States allowed itself to have totalitarian islands within its legal system, such as the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where torture was practiced. This cannot simply be swept under the rug. This wound, too, is bleeding. Obama will presumably not be able to avoid having criminal charges pressed against some of those found responsible. And, often enough, the chain of command ended with Dick Cheney.

The war on terror was the consequence of 9/11; it shaped America's foreign policy after that point. It is based on the fear that history will repeat itself. But even if dictatorships can be permanently ruled by fear, democracies cannot. Democracies are based on optimism, on the hope that -- despite all the crises -- things will get better. And they're also based on the expectation that measures can be taken to counter threats like terrorism, even if a high risk remains.

True democracies can only be temporarily ruled by fear and humiliation. And they learn from their mistakes. But this is precisely where Cheney has failed. His theory is based on a "what if" question looking toward the future. What if, he asks, terrorists attack with the bomb?

But the fact is that every government in every country must take precautions, and then it's up to institutions -- such as the police, customs agents, border guards, the coast guard and, above all, the intelligence agencies -- to enforce these measures. Following the general state of cluelessness that reigned before 9/11, it would have made sense to shake up these government agencies, to reorganize them and to prepare them for all contingencies.

The bureaucratic structures of power are the right place to take the measures that the attacks from eight years ago made necessary. This is where the fear of history's repeating itself should lead to enhanced efficiency -- within the scope of the rule of law.

In his memoirs, Cheney defends his creation. But, in the real world, it has crumbled. We know what began after 9/11. But the real question is, where will it end -- for America, for the world and for Dick Cheney?

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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