Dissecting Cheney

The vice president's fantasy of world domination via control of oil stems from his formative years in the shadow Cold War.

Published October 5, 2004 3:02PM (EDT)

History's final verdict on George W. Bush may well be to dismiss him as a frontman who was not quite up to his job. But nothing like that will be said of Dick Cheney. Cheney is undeniably intelligent, powerful and shrewd -- a force to be reckoned with, even though he has operated mainly in the shadows.

The key to understanding Cheney is that he is a throwback -- to a brand of strategic thinking that bedeviled the Cold War. He is part of the legacy that runs back to Generals Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power of the Strategic Air Command in the late 1950s. The two tenets of this legacy are absolutely consistent: 1) Overestimate the enemy and govern through fear, and 2) hit the enemy before it can hit you. In four words: "missile gap" and "first strike."

That school never quite seized control of American strategic policy while the Soviet Union existed, though it came close on several occasions, including the Cuban missile crisis. It often won budget and political battles through trickery, such as the CIA Team B exercise of the early 1980s, which led to the "Star Wars" missile defense program. But the first strike never happened. In the end cooler and wiser heads, from Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson through Nixon and Reagan, always saw the advantages of working with Soviet leaders to prevent war.

Economic competition with the Soviet bloc followed the logic of warfare. The Soviet Union represented an alternative industrial system, capable of absorbing the world's oil, gold, uranium and other strategic resources. Denying it access to key supplies -- oil in the Middle East, gold in South Africa, uranium in Zaire -- was the cornerstone of covert strategy in those years, dictating many ugly political choices. This too formed Cheney. It helps explain why, as late as 1986, he opposed a congressional resolution pressing for the release of Nelson Mandela from his South African prison.

The larger economic balance of the Cold War was a third element in Cheney's upbringing. With the non-Communist industrial countries, the United States cut a simple bargain. We provided security -- including naval control of the oceans and a nuclear umbrella over Europe and Japan. They in turn tolerated a dollar-based world financial system, permitting the United States to live far above its productive powers. America's perpetual trade deficits were balanced, in simple terms, by the bomb and the fleet.

Ten years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the shadowy hard men of the Cold War finally came into uncontested power in the United States. And to our tragic cost, they brought unchanged thinking to a radically different world. The puzzle was how to force the new reality into the old frame. Their solution? To re-create in the minds of the public a world that would resemble, as much as possible, the dangerous but politically familiar one in which they had been formed.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Bush and Cheney were searching for an enemy that could generate an appropriate level of fear. North Korea was an early candidate. Bush in his first days refused to support South Korea's "sunshine initiative" for improving relations with North Korea and used the supposed North Korean missile threat as the prime lever behind Cheney's key military priority at that time, missile defense. Reality, however, intruded: Kim Jong-Il could not fill Stalin's shoes. So China got a tryout too, with much tub-thumping about a supposedly growing threat to Taiwan. But then came the EP-3 incident, when a U.S. Navy spy plane was forced to land on Hainan Island, and the Chinese interned the crew and dissected the aircraft. This seems to have persuaded Team Cheney that Team China was apt to make them look like fools.

Sept. 11 put all of this into the background.

Although the "global war on terror" was rooted in a real event, it was conducted in a way fundamentally oriented to the political opportunities this event created rather than the actual dangers it revealed. Thus the administration's neglect of port security, the squeeze on first responders, the negligence at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, the flippant attitude toward the nuclear risks in Russian stockpiles and Pakistani labs. Thus the pathetic system of colored alerts and the roundup and detention of irrelevant people, not a single one of whom has been convicted of a terrorism-related offense in the three years since.

Rule through fear remains an essential part of Cheney's message; he reiterates it every day on the stump. But three years after Sept. 11, the message no longer resonates. It has come to sound, to most Americans, like an excuse for failure in every other sphere. And overseas, the clash of civilizations has never worked as a cry for the mobilization of the West. The major European states are not conned, and neither is Japan. They have much more experience of political terror than we do -- and they realize that the job of rolling up the terror networks belongs, for the most part, to the national and international police. For this reason, the global bargain that held up the dollar through the Cold War is imperiled. You can be sure that Cheney has no idea how to restore it.

Cheney's actual conduct in Iraq recaptures almost exactly the two operational doctrines of the shadow Cold War. It is now obvious that his strategic vision centers on physical control of the world's oil. And his justification for the attack on Iraq, delivered on Aug. 26, 2002, was a pure statement of the hidden doctrine of the first strike.

Maps of Iraq's oil fields and lists of foreign companies doing business there were found in the archives of Cheney's Energy Task Force. What does this prove? First, that the task force was not solely concerned with domestic energy policy and regulation, as it was said to be. It was, at least in part, a forum for considering the control of global oil. At worst, the maps and lists constitute prima facie evidence that the conquest of Iraq was on the corporate agenda from the beginning of the Bush years.

But why? What advantage would the United States get from boots on the ground in the oil fields? It may seem a naive question, but it is not.

It is theoretically possible that Cheney supported an invasion of Iraq purely for corporate gain -- to secure reserves for Big Oil and services contracts for Halliburton and Bechtel. I don't believe this. At least, I don't believe the evidence is yet sufficient to convict. But it will be interesting to get to the moment -- early in the next administration, let's presume -- when the Energy Task Force archives can be fully examined and we can know for sure.

It's more likely, though, that Cheney simply applied the doctrine of resource control with which he grew up to the world that exists today -- without asking what it means in the new global economy.

Today, there is only one major Communist country -- the People's Republic of China. But 25 years after it began economic reforms, China is thoroughly integrated into the dollar world. Does China have a problem getting oil? Not at all. Nor will it so long as Chinese goods sell on American markets and oil can be bought with dollars.

So who is benefiting from our expenditure of blood and treasure on Iraq's oil fields? So long as the strategy works, anyone with whom we do business. Including China, of course, even though not a single People's Liberation Army soldier need ever set foot away from Chinese soil.

The problem is, the strategy is failing. The effort to control the oil fields is leading, very rapidly, to increasing oil prices, a permanent volatility of supply and an inflationary slowdown in economic activity both in the United States and abroad.

The implications are simple. We can live with any security system that permits oil to come to market in an orderly way. Even though none of the Middle East oil regimes is security safe, the West can, and does, buy oil from Iran. It could, and did, buy oil from Saddam Hussein. It buys oil from the Saudis, despite their misuse of some of the revenues to finance a global network of terror. Security issues are raised by each of these cases. But the security risks can't be dealt with by physical occupation of oil fields.

Obviously, Cheney doesn't get this at all.

So let's return to that Aug. 26, 2002, speech, in which Cheney sought to justify a military invasion of Iraq on grounds of America's national security. His speech emphasized the threat posed by Saddam to the United States stemming from his pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; his concealment of that pursuit; his persistent plotting to foil and frustrate U.N. inspectors; and his appalling record of regional aggression, against Iran and then against Kuwait. Cheney wrapped these factors into a frightening bundle of conclusions:

"Should all of Saddam Hussein's aggressive ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous, for the Middle East, for the United States, and for the peace of the world. The whole range of weapons of mass destruction then would rest in the hands of a dictator who has already shown his willingness to use such weapons, and has done so, both in his war with Iran and against his own people. Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."

According to Cheney, Saddam was an ambitious, aggressive, dangerous man with access to vast wealth and technical capacities, including WMD. There was the threat that he would someday soon choke off our access -- and that of our friends and allies -- to the oil on which we rely, defending his position with "nuclear blackmail." Therefore, Cheney concluded, the United States must act, lest by waiting it find itself helpless against the man and the weapons he might soon control.

The threat to our supply of oil was, on the surface, an impressive argument -- by far the leading edge of the Bush administration's case for war. But Cheney and others did not ask the obvious question: To whom would Saddam sell his oil, if not on the world market? The alternative customer -- the Soviet empire -- was no longer in existence! Would he hold it in the ground and starve?

As we now know, the supposed facts that Cheney advanced were not true, and should have been suspect at the time. But the underlying principle did not depend on whether his combination of psychological inference, history and current information was correct, for Cheney believed we were entitled to act on presumption and inference. Cheney held -- and holds today -- that America's responsibility is to assume the worst, and to act today to prevent the worst, on the off-chance that the assumption might be correct.

This is the meaning of the declaration -- at the outset of the Aug. 26 speech, at West Point and elsewhere by Bush -- that the "old doctrines of security do not apply." Cheney clarified:

"In the days of the Cold War, we were able to manage the threat with strategies of deterrence and containment. But it's a lot tougher to deter enemies who have no country to defend. And containment is not possible when dictators obtain weapons of mass destruction, and are prepared to share them with terrorists who intend to inflict catastrophic casualties on the United States."

The claim that "containment is not possible when dictators obtain weapons of mass destruction" was false on its face. What about the Soviet Union? That country, governed by dictators, had many such weapons. And yet it was contained with great success for four decades. The Soviet Union collapsed in the end without inflicting so much as a single external casualty from any of these weapons. Nor did the Soviets ever contemplate sharing agents of mass destruction with terrorists, despite manifold Western fantasies (and James Bond movies) to that effect.

But Cheney's assertion, though nonsensical as stated, was not inconsistent with his core beliefs. He had always rejected the doctrines of deterrence and containment -- even as they applied to the Soviet Union. His position in 2002 was not a new one, crafted by strategists thinking afresh about the world after the Cold War. It was, instead, a direct return to the fantasy of world domination, powered by the atomic monopoly, that took hold in American military minds in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and that threatened the security and survival of the world for 20 years after that.

Preventive self-defense is nothing else than the most dangerous subterranean tendency of Cold War bombardiers LeMay and Power, who favored an unprovoked first strike against the Soviet Union. It is the doctrine rightly ridiculed in "Dr. Strangelove," resurrected and brought to you live in the nightmare we call Iraq.

By James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/3kut4k5, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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2004 Elections Dick Cheney Iraq War