Dick Cheney Doesn't Know a War When He Sees It

In a new interview the former vice president insinuates that Barack Obama treats terrorism as a "law-enforcement problem."

Dick Cheney recently gave an interview to Playboy. The interviewer asked, "Do you feel Obama, either intentionally or inadvertently, has undone your and President Bush’s work?" And the former vice president does feel that way. He gave several examples.

The most noteworthy:

"I don’t think he ever bought into the notion that we’re at war, in terms of a war on terrorism," Cheney said. "I think he always wanted to treat it as a law-enforcement problem."

That is nonsense.

And it is noteworthy nonsense because it underscores the unreality at the core of the foreign-policy critique coming from the Dick Cheney wing of the Republican Party.

Here are some uncontested facts:

  • President Obama began his tenure by surging tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, where nearly 10,000 American troops remain even today.
  • Using weaponized drones, the Obama Administration has ordered lethal strikes that have killed an estimated 2,500 people spread across several countries.
  • The Obama Administration put American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on a secret kill list and blew him up with a hellfire missile. They killed his teenage son in a separate strike.
  • Obama ordered a team of Navy Seals on a covert operation inside Pakistan, where they stormed Osama Bin Laden's compound, killed his guards, shot him dead, and dumped his body in the ocean.
  • According to the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force has hit 3,220 ISIS targets with air strikes, all since October 2014.

Those are not acts of "law enforcement" (even factoring in all the military hardware the Pentagon has transitioned from war zones to municipal police departments).

Pointing to Obama's war-making isn't about attacking or defending him. It's about exposing Cheney and other hawks in the Republican Party whose contribution to the foreign-policy debate is misinformation. They fail to offer critiques that might help the U.S. because they operate as if obviously false positions are true. The number of countries Obama has dropped bombs on exceeds the number of draft deferments Cheney has sought (five), a claim not many presidents can make.

And as Eli Lake reported in 2010:

When it comes to the legal framework for confronting terrorism, President Obama is acting in no meaningful sense any different than President Bush after 2006, when the Supreme Court overturned the view that the president’s war time powers were effectively unlimited. As the Obama administration itself is quick to point out, the Bush administration also tried terrorists apprehended on U.S. soil in criminal courts, most notably “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid. More important, President Obama has embraced and at times defended the same expansive view of a global war against Al Qaeda as President Bush.

The U.S. still reserves the right to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely without charge, try them via military tribunal, keep them imprisoned even if they are acquitted, and kill them in foreign countries with which America is not formally at war (including Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan). When Obama closed the secret CIA prisons known as “black sites,” he specifically allowed for temporary detention facilities where a suspect could be taken before being sent to a foreign or domestic prison, a practice known as “rendition.” And even where the Obama White House has made a show of how it has broken with the Bush administration, such as outlawing enhanced interrogation techniques, it has done so through executive order, which can be reversed at any time by the sitting president.

Love or hate him, Obama has chosen to wage war on terrorists every bit as much as Cheney has chosen to spend his retirement outside the reality-based community. Should Hillary Clinton win the Democratic primary, it will be interesting to see if Cheney acknowledges the frequency with which she has championed war or keeps insisting that the rival party's leader favors a "law-enforcement approach." In many respects, the U.S. would be better off if only he were right.