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Dick Cheney: Learning from Mistakes?

The chattering class has spent the past week dissecting the new memoir from much-reviled former VP Dick Cheney. The reaction has been mostly negative and will do little to revive his tarnished reputation. The Washington Post criticizes Cheney for failing to learn from the Iraq experience:

Yet in his new memoir, “In My Time,” Cheney shows he has not fully absorbed that lesson when he writes about the administration’s response to the 2007 discovery of a nuclear reactor in Syria that the North Koreans had helped build.

In Cheney’s telling, the evidence showed “a clandestine nuclear reactor, built by two terrorist-sponsoring states.” Given the potential threat, he argued privately to Bush, and later to top national security officials, that the United States should destroy the reactor.

In a National Security Council session that June, he writes, “I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor. Not only would it make the region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with respect to non-proliferation. It would enhance our credibility in that part of the world . . . . But I was the lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room. I had done all I could, and I’m not sure the president’s mind would have been changed if the others had agreed with me.”

He notes with some relish that two months later the Israelis took unilateral action and destroyed the reactor. The clear implication is that Bush and the others had lost their nerve, that they lacked the necessary spine to act as he had recommended.

The vice president views America’s reluctance to destroy the reactor as a sign of weakness. Yet power is about more than the ability to impose your will overseas — it is about getting the results you need at the lowest possible cost.  The reactor is gone, but the US did not bear the risks and costs of its removal.

Foreign policy sometimes demands a little finesse; the rapier is sometimes a more useful weapon than the sledgehammer.

Foreign policy is more like an organ than a trumpet; there are many keyboards, two sets of pedals and a very wide range of stops that can produce sounds ranging from a trumpet fanfare to a quiet, reedy flute.  The besetting sin of the Bush administration was its lack of familiarity with the full range of possibilities.  It was like a carpenter who only seemed to know how to use one or two of the many tools in the toolbox.  The Vice President’s memoirs help us understand why that was so.

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  • Mike M.

    “The besetting sin of the Bush administration was its lack of familiarity with the full range of possibilities.”

    Respectfully, doesn’t this story from the book disprove this notion? Yes, Cheney was (and is) a hard-liner’s hard-liner, and you can probably say the same about Rumsfeld as well, but the entire memoir shows time and again that the administration was quite divided. In the end, these guys were completely isolated and even Bush himself was no longer listening to their advice.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      The Bush administration got better with time, but the tone had already been set. Cheney has a lot of responsibility for that, in my view.

  • WigWag

    “Yet power is about more than the ability to impose your will overseas — it is about getting the results you need at the lowest possible cost. The reactor is gone, but the US did not bear the risks and costs of its removal.”(Walter Russell Mead)

    Actually, in this case Dick Cheney was right and Walter Russell Mead and his fellow members of the chattering classes are wrong. President Bush and the rest of his cabinet were wrong as well.

    It may be true that the wise projection of power is facilitated by employing the least costly option, but in this case, as the Israelis proved; destroying the reactor was practically cost free. Given the state of the Syrian airforce, it was also risk free.

    After the Americans demurred and the Israelis destroyed the nuclear facility there were no costs that were paid. There was little to no international outrage. There were no sanctions, U.N. commissions or nasty editorials in the New York Times. Most of America’s Sunni Arab allies secretly cheered, the Iranians and North Koreans quietly took note and the rest of the world uttered hardly a peep.

    The point is that when Israel destroyed the nuclear facility the cost was almost nil but the benefits were great. With the turmoil going on in Syria right now would anyone want fissionable material circulating around? If a cornered and hated Assad maintains power, isn’t the thought of his possessing nuclear material particularly chilling? If Assad is overthrown and the Muslim Brotherhood takes control in Syria do we want them having access to nuclear material? If Assad holds on, do we want him proliferating radioactive material to either Hezbollah or the Iranians?

    The Israeli destruction of the Syrian nuclear facility accomplished a tremendous amount for virtually no cost at all.

    If the Americans had taken Vice President Cheney’s advise and not waited for the Israelis, the costs would have been even less. Whatever outrage an Israeli attack inspired (and it wasn’t much) an American attack would have inspired even less. There wouldn’t have been more outrage in the Arab street if America had done the job; as disliked as the United States may be, the “street” despises the Israelis far more. There wouldn’t have been any U.N resolutions, no international criminal court indictments and no backlash from the Chinese or Indians. Even the feckless Europeans would have offered no criticism.

    But had the United States done the job, think of the powerful message it would have sent to the region. The Saudis would have been impressed that the United States was willing to take strong and decisive action; they would have quietly but whole-heartedly approved. The Turks might have been annoyed but their annoyance would have been a good thing. Bombing the reactor would have been a message to the Turks that the United States will act in its own interests and the interests of its allies; the sensibilities of fake allies like Turkey, notwithstanding.

    The Syrians would have gotten the message that there are limits to America’s patience with Syrian support for Iran and Hezbollah and its alliance on nuclear issues with North Korea. An American bombardment might just have motivated the Syrians to think twice the next time they were inclined to do something outrageous. Certainly if Bush had ordered the destruction of the nuclear facility it would have sent a far more valuable message than the message that was sent by Obama when he returned the American Ambassador to Damascus. Exactly how useful has Ambassador Ford’s presence in Syria been?

    Finally, had the Americans as opposed to the Israelis destroyed the reactor it would have been an extraordinarily useful shot across the bow of both the Iranians and Hezbollah. It would have made clear that the United States is prepared to act in its own interests and didn’t need to rely on surrogates like the Israelis.

    So I think Professor Mead gets this argument backwards. Cheney may not have had many allies in his suggestion that the United States act like the superpower that it is supposed to be, but his argument was superior to the argument of his opponents.

    Had President Bush listened to Dick Cheney there would have been all upside and virtually no downside. Professor Mead says that power is about getting the maximum results at the lowest possible cost. The problem with his argument is that whether it was the Israelis or the Americans who attacked, the costs were miniscule. But having the Israelis destroy the reactor deprived the United States from sending a very useful message.

    The sending of that message is the point; the message sent by a small, cost-free and virtually risk-free military incursion might very well have contributed to an atmosphere that made a much larger and more violent confrontation in the Middle East less likely.

    The message of weakness that Bush sent to the Syrians has been dramatically escalated by the Obama Administration that telegraphs weakness wherever it goes. Unfortunately the costs of projecting weakness is often paid in the most violent and destructive of ways.

  • Haim

    I think that the core truth here is that American intelligence is, to put it mildly, not always omniscient. Because of irrelevant factors (the “Iraq experience”) the American NIE is still not certain on the Iranian nuclear program. It won’t be certain till the first bomb falls on Tel Aviv. Israelis knew more about the reactor, they knew how dangerous it is, and they aren’t encumbered by American idiosyncrasies. So they went ahead, bombed it and noticed to themselves that American commitment to Israeli security is no longer absolute. The resulting impotence of American attempts to bully Israel on “peace process” are testament to the “wisdom” of this decision not to get involved.

  • Robert

    “Foreign policy sometimes demands a little finesse; the rapier is sometimes a more useful weapon than the sledgehammer.”

    True enough. But this was an occasion when being seen to wield a sledgehammer would have helped our interests.

    Foreign policy finesse is useful as far as it goes. But the world’s most powerful nation needs to remind everyone from time to time that trying to pull a fast one on us is dangerous to your health.

    It wasn’t our “finesse” that got Col. Daffy to give up his nuclear program at the start of second Gulf war.

    More broadly, enemies need to be put in a state of mind where they are highly uneasy over just what you’ll do and how far you’ll go after a provocation. And creating that fear in their minds requires ruthlessly smashing things on occasion. The Syrian reactor — a piece of work by at least three of our enemies (NoKo, Iran, Syria) — was a perfect example.

    Cheney was right, and Bush (not for the first time) showed himself — and through him, the United States — to be weak in the face of evil. That’s never a good move in foreign policy.

  • Richard S

    Do I trust Bob Woodward’s view of the lessons Cheney should have learned?

  • Kenneth Marks

    It appears that the only one who hasn’t learned anything is you, Mr. Mead. What has 10 years or more of your cherished finesse rapier diplomacy done for the west to protect us against IRAN which is building nukes as we speak. You must realize that the murders in control of that country will certainly use the bomb when they get it.

    Ken Marks

  • Mrs. Davis

    And let’s not even bring up the results of President Clinton’s pusillanimous decision to do nothing about North Korea’s nuclear program.

  • Thomas Donnelly

    The strike by the Israelis wasn’t so much the use of a rapier but someone else using a (smaller) sledgehammer. That the Israeli strike didn’t cause some larger response probably a measure of Syrian weakness — including weakness in the eyes of other Arab states and actors in the region — more than anything else, and hardly a perfectly predictable outcome.

    The force of the Cheney ’twere-better-’twere-done-by-us logic is even more apparent when applied to the case of Iran’s nuclear program. There isn’t an “Israeli option” the promises a reward worth the risk, and the ability of sanctions or diplomacy or even Stuxnet-type cyber attacks to produce a good or lasting outcome is, thus far, not clearly the least-bad alternative.

    One needn’t be an apologist for the former Vice President to find it hard to see easily transferrable “lessons” in the case of Syria. And to what degree are the lessons learned by the Washington Establishment of the Woodward sort shaping our lead-from-behind response to the current uprising there? Indeed, the broader course of recent US policy and strategy toward Syria — “Assad the Reformer?” — looks more like weakness and delusion than “smart power.” The rapier is a dashing and elegant weapon, and occasionally lethal. But you better have a sledgehammer in your other hand.

  • megapotamus

    No need to pile on, I guess. I’m not sure why The American Interest seems to draw from Townhall and AmSpec is mysterious but let me observe, as others have above, that even the narrative as we have it here doesn’t endorse Mr Meade’s proposition. At best it is neutral. We seem to agree that the reactor had to go. Intelligence issues are not that convincing given that this installation was spewing radiation that can not be explained by making baby milk. It does seem that Israel gained some benefit from slagging it in the coin of fear, or respect if you prefer. If the US had done the same it seems the only negative would have been denying Israel that benefit. Is this the most damaging anecdote from Cheney’s book? Wow, even I can’t believe that and I make Rumsfeld look like Walter Mondale. Maybe I should buy it. In hardcover.

  • higgins1990

    I agree with WigWag. The “do nothing and hope for the problem to go away” organ playing mentality is why North Korea has nukes and Iran soon will.

    The Syrian reactor is gone because the Israelis used a sledgehammer. If they had not done this, Assad or the Brotherhood would be very close to having nukes. And that would be very bad.

  • Kris

    According to Woodward, it seems that the lesson to learn from Iraq is that even if an enemy country is secretly building a nuclear reactor, we must not do anything unless we are certain that they are developing nuclear weapons. And we can rest easy that our infallible intelligence agencies will detect the latter.

    As to our host’s argument, I will rephrase Haim’s point: Syria (along with its patron Iran) is Israel’s bitterest enemy. If the US, under the arguably most Israel-friendly administration ever, was unwilling to act against the secret Syrian reactor, that reinforces Israeli attitudes that they can count only on themselves. This would tend to reduce American influence on Israel.

  • Jeff77450

    @WigWag: I can’t agree with including WRM with the chattering-classes but otherwise: very well said.

  • Russ Wood

    Prof. Mead, I disagree your suggestion that Mr. Cheney failed to learn from Iraq. It seems to me that, to reach your conclusion, you’re both relying too much on the popular mythology of failure in Iraq and conflating independent issues.

    Iraq’s an ongoing project which may succeed, probably played a large role in sparking the Arab uprisings of last year, and certainly is far better than what was there. Iraq may yet be a success that was worth the cost. Although the debate over Iraq still rages, Mr. Cheney would not be obviously wrong in holding the view that it was a success.

    Further, the question of bombing the nuclear facility in Syria is essentially independent of the Iraq situation. Okay, “opinion in the Arab world, etc.” — worries about such opinion should influence, but cannot put strategic decisions in a straightjacket. Anyway, Mr. Cheney could perfectly well have agreed that Iraq was a failure (or too costly), and still have argued perfectly logically that we should stop nuclear proliferation in Syria, particularly given the Iran connection. (Only if he could have been certain that Israel would not do the dirty work for us would that argument have been obviously wrong-headed.)

    Mr. Cheney evidently has a lower threshold for the use of military force than you, but that does not imply that he’s failed to learn.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Russ Wood: My point was that sometimes you can achieve your goal — the destruction of the Syrian reactor — without actually using force yourself. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to step back while others do your work for you.

  • Russ Wood

    Prof. Mead,

    I agree that it often makes sense to let others do the nasty jobs for us. But two quick comments.

    First, I don’t see how that reality suggests that Mr. Cheney failed to learn from Iraq. Was there someone else available to take out Saddam?

    Second, Mr. Cheney undoubtedly did consider the possibility of Israel taking out the Syrian facility — he was around when it took out the Iraqi nuclear plant, a step which probably was a necessary precondition to our ability to act against Saddam in both Gulf wars. I’m virtually certain that the US had held discussions with Israel about the possibility of its taking out the Syrian reactor. As seems to be the usual pattern, we probably were telling Israel publicly to leave it alone, and privately asking them to take it out for us. I think that the likely story, is that he encouraged Pres. Bush to attack the facility because Israel would not commit to do so. We won’t know whether that is correct until some participant tells us more about the situation. But I would not jump to the conclusion that Mr. Cheney failed to consider the possibility — or failed to learn from the Iraq experience.

    I greatly enjoy your blog posts, and would be very interested to hear what you consider to be the “lessons of Iraq”.

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