Were There Norms Dick Cheney Wasn't Prepared to Transgress?

George H.W. Bush tells his biographer that his secretary of defense considered using tactical nuclear weapons against Iraqi forces in the First Gulf War.

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When Dick Cheney left the vice presidency his approval rating stood at a dismal 13 percent. As it turns out, even George H.W. Bush thought that he did a bad job.

“After years of holding back, former President George Bush has finally broken his public silence about some of the key figures in his son’s administration, issuing scathing critiques of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld,” the New York Times reported, cribbing from a Jon Meacham biography of the 41st president that will be in book stores beginning next week.

Said the newspaper:

In his interviews with Mr. Meacham, the former president returned several times to the topic of Mr. Cheney, who handled the role of vice president very differently from the way the first Mr. Bush did under Ronald Reagan. “He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer… He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Mr. Bush said. He attributed that to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything...”

He speculated that Mr. Cheney was influenced by his wife, Lynne, and his daughter Liz, both strong conservatives. “I’ve concluded that Lynne Cheney is a lot of the eminence grise here – iron-ass, tough as nails, driving,” he said. Still, he called Mr. Cheney “a good man” who pushed boundaries too far. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department,” Mr. Bush said. “I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault. It’s the president’s fault.” By that, he meant his son. “The buck stops there,” the elder Mr. Bush said.

That critique of Dick Cheney is consistent with how the former vice president has been rendered by journalists like Jane Mayer and Barton Gellman, who’ve cast him as a master bureaucrat who used his insider knowledge of how the executive branch works to shape policy, sometimes without the president’s knowledge.

It is newsworthy that Bush 41 made that critique of his former secretary of defense and his son, and I’ve relayed his comments much as the New York Times journalists did, having not yet seen Jon Meacham’s biography myself. But I was most struck by something that the newspaper mentioned only in passing:

The book includes diary entries...

It reports that as defense secretary for the elder Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney commissioned a study of how many tactical nuclear weapons would be needed to take out an Iraqi Republican Guard division, if necessary.

(The answer: 17.)

Cheney’s interest in tactical nukes has been reported before, but garnered little attention, and escaped my notice.

Like Bush 41, my understanding had been that 9/11 radicalized Dick Cheney. But I’m tempted to change my view of the torture advocate if, prior to 1993, he was contemplating a first-strike use of nuclear weapons against the Iraqi army.

Did Cheney ever see a norm that he didn’t consider transgressing against?