Dick Cheney, Rand Paul, and the Possibility of Malign Leaders

The Kentucky senator twice suggested that Halliburton's relationship with Dick Cheney influenced Iraq policy. Is that so crazy?
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Every American sees that leaders in foreign countries sometimes behave immorally. Yet we often seem averse to believing that our own leaders can be just as malign. That's certainly my bias: Judging the character of U.S. officials, my gut impulse is to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I know that my gut is sometimes wrong, that our institutions rather than anything intrinsic to our compatriots explains the comparative lack of corruption and tyranny in the United States, and that it's important to stay open to the possibility of malign or corrupt leaders—because otherwise, it's impossible to adequately guard against them. The Founders understood this. So did generations of traditional conservatives. Have today's Americans forgotten?

* * *

An old clip of Senator Rand Paul is in the news.

In 2009, he warned college Republicans at Western Kentucky University to "be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy." The example he used to illustrate the point: Dick Cheney's relationship with Halliburton, a defense contractor that benefited from the Iraq War. After serving as George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993, Cheney was chairman and CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000. In the 2009 clip, Paul said that in 1995, Cheney had argued on video that the Bush Administration was right to avoid invading and occupying Iraq.

The clip he cited is actually from 1994. Here it is with a transcript:

If we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anyone else with us. It would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq; none of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you've got the Kurds; if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you've threatened the territorial integrity of Turkey. It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.

The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact that we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action and for their families it wasn't a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, and took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth?

And our judgment was not very many, and I think we got it right. 

Paul paraphrased Cheney passably enough for off-the-cuff remarks to college students. "Dick Cheney then goes to work for Halliburton," the Kentucky Republican continued, "makes hundreds of millions of dollars as their CEO, the next thing you know he's back in government, and it's a good thing to go into Iraq." 

Paul made a similar critique one year earlier:

His arguments are exactly mirroring my dad's arguments for why we shouldn't have gone in this time. It would be chaos. There'd be a civil war. There'd be no exit strategy. And cost a blue bloody fortune in both lives and treasure. And this is Dick Cheney saying this. But, you know, a couple hundred million dollars later Dick Cheney earns from Halliburton, he comes back into government. Now Halliburton's got a billion-dollar no-bid contract in Iraq. You know, you hate to be so cynical that you think some of these corporations are able to influence policy, but I think sometimes they are. Most of the people on these [congressional] committees have a million dollars in their bank account all from different military-industrial contractors. We don't want our defense to be defined by people who make money off of the weapons.

These critiques are in the news thanks to David Corn of Mother Jones. He characterizes them in the way that suggests he's more interested in shit-stirring than clarity. His summary is not inconsistent with, but goes farther than, what Paul said:

The message is clear: Cheney, a corporate shill, was more loyal to Halliburton—and the millions of dollars he earned from the company—than to the United States, and he and Halliburton manipulated the country into the Iraq War. Paul was essentially accusing Cheney of a profound betrayal: using 9/11 to start a war to profit Halliburton.

Actually, Paul's message is somewhat less clear than that.

Here's a more modest interpretation. Paul believes the many millions of dollars that Cheney had earned from Halliburton left the vice president with divided loyalties; that his time there affected his judgment in all the complicated ways one worries about whenever huge conflicts of interest are at play; and that Halliburton was one factor, though far from the only one, in pushing America to war. 

I find that a more plausible reading of Paul's views. 

What's my best guess? That circa 2002 Cheney earnestly thought the Iraq invasion was the right thing to do, but that his judgment had been inevitably biased and compromised by his time working for a defense contractor, and that the understandable loyalties he formed while at the company probably did influence his decision-making in some way, as did the vast sums of money that his former colleagues stood to earn if an invasion and occupation were to occur. It would take an unusually honorable person to not be influenced by so much money and power, which is why defense contractors spread it around Washington, D.C. That also seems consistent with what Paul said, and may or may not be what he meant.

But even though I wouldn't bet that "Cheney, a corporate shill, was more loyal to Halliburton, and the millions of dollars he earned from the company, than to the United States"—even though I don't think Paul would put it that way either—it seems to me that it's dangerous, to dismiss that possibility as if it's a kooky conspiracy theory. 

Enter Michelle Cottle writing at The Daily Beast

As someone who opposed the Iraq War, I enjoy watching Cheney get slapped around on the issue as much as the next gal. But it’s one thing to accuse the former veep of ideologically driven Machiavellianism; ’tis quite another to suggest that he did what he did out of loyalty to his Halliburton cronies. That is a far darker charge that, while already generating glee on the left, is also the kind of right-on-the-knife’s-edge-of-nuttiness conspiracy-spinning likely to bite Paul on the butt as he tries to capture his party’s nomination.

Is this really the "edge of nuttiness"? I suspect Cottle's reflexive resistance to Cheney-as-crony has less to do with its implausibility than with our aversion to thinking an American elected official could be capable of something so evil and depraved. 

But come on. That's just naive. 

J. Edgar Hoover existed. So did the U.S. government employees who followed orders to try blackmailing Martin Luther King into suicide. Abu Ghraib happened. Americans have sold secrets to depraved regimes.

To safeguard corporate profits and personal power, various CEOs hid the fact that smoking their products kills people; others polluted the drinking water of whole communities; still others decided that a recall would be more expensive than product liability litigation, and stood by passively as an actuarially predictable number of motorists burned up in cars. American CEOs have knowingly relied on slave labor in Third World countries. They've collaborated with Nazis and hidden from athletes the fact that the sport they play will cause permanent brain damage. This is to say nothing of the perennial existence of black-market arms brokers and the long history of war profiteering.

Look a man in the face, watch him on television next to his wife and children, and it's hard to believe he'd do any of those things. But there are men who do them.

Why not a vice president? Are we to believe that Americans are capable of evil, but not our politicians? That's an odd profession to exempt. Again, forced to wager, I'd bet that the darkest interpretation is not true of Cheney. But putting the possibility in the realm of nutty conspiracy theory is illogical. 

Is it really beyond the realm of possibility that a former Halliburton CEO urged America into war in part to further enrich his former colleagues? Zeroing in on Paul's larger point about defense contractors influencing policy, can anyone credibly argue that the dollars they spread around Washington have no effect?

Then there's the particular Halliburton CEO in question. Is he the sort of individual who would game the system in which he operates in order to wield more power? Check

Do we have any reason to believe he'd break the law or violate civilizational taboos? Does he believe that ends justify means? Well, he's a zealous apologist for torture. To me, that alone is evidence that he is capable of doing evil. 

Was he willing to lie to the American people to sell the war in Iraq? Yeah, that seems true too. Cheney's true motives are hidden from us. We should act accordingly

* * *

President Eisenhower was the first to warn Americans about the military-industrial complex. Recall that this was a five-star general who led our troops in World War II.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex," he said in his farewell address. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted."

The military-industrial complex is much more powerful today. It is important for Americans to understand that "the disastrous rise of misplaced power" is still possible.

It is important that we recall a president telling us, "We should take nothing for granted." Would Eisenhower counsel suspicion or trust if told that an American vice president (1) got very rich working for a defense contractor, (2) took power, (3) urged an invasion he had formerly opposed, knowing it would enrich his former company, which then got a no-bid contract, (4) only to have many of the reasons given for favoring war fall apart under scrutiny? Suspicion in that situation isn't a sign of being conspiracy-minded, it is a sign of having one's eyes open.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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