In Cheney's world, only the straw men are allowed to debate

The vice president tries again on Iraq.

Published August 29, 2006 12:55PM (EDT)

Speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney did his best to rally support for the war in Iraq. It was all there: The repeated invocations of 9/11, lots of talk about "the enemy," the rosy assessment of conditions in Iraq and the threat that terrorists will get their hands on "chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons."

And somewhere in there, Cheney made the pivot. As we noted the other day, Cheney used to try to quash criticism about the way the Bush administration misled the country into war by distinguishing such "dishonest and reprehensible" attacks from the "entirely legitimate discussion" about what we should be doing about the war now. No more. Cheney now insists that talk of withdrawal from Iraq can't even be part of a "healthy debate" in the United States.

"In our own country, we take democratic values seriously -- and so we always have a vigorous debate on the issues. That's part of the greatness of America, and we wouldn't have it any other way," Cheney said. "But there is a difference between healthy debate and self-defeating pessimism. We have only two options in Iraq -- victory or defeat. And this nation will not pursue a policy of retreat. We will complete the mission, we will get it done right, and then we will return with honor."

But with a majority of the American public saying all U.S. troops should be out of Iraq within a year, Cheney knows that he can't just declare withdrawal out of the bounds of political debate. What he can do -- what the Bush administration often does -- is marginalize political opponents by smearing them with "straw man" arguments that mischaracterize their views.

Cheney was on the march Monday. "I know some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein, we simply stirred up a hornet's nest," he said. A few moments later, he added: "I realize, as well, that some in our own country claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone. But the exact opposite is true ... They would simply draw up another set of demands and instruct Americans to act as they direct or to face other murders."

If anyone is advocating withdrawal based on arguments like these, we haven't been hearing them. The case for withdrawal is pretty simple: We shouldn't have invaded Iraq in the first place, and the cost of staying there -- in lives, in money, in the lost opportunities to deal with Osama bin Laden or Iran or North Korea -- far exceeds whatever marginal benefit there may be in staying the course, which is serving mostly to make Americans a target and create a dangerous sort of codependency on the part of the Iraqi government and its fledgling security forces.

Cheney didn't engage with that argument Monday, and why should he? It's easier to fight against caricatures than to debate whether an additional 50 or 100 or 2,600 dead Americans will bring security to Iraq or transform the Middle East. It's easier to debate a straw man than a real one.

At AMERICAblog this morning, a reader shows how two can play this game:

"Some say it's patriotic to be cavalier about the deaths of nearly three thousand of our young brave troops, lying about the reasons for going to war with Iraq and then running the war incompetently, rather than concentrating on the real 'war on terror' and capturing Osama bin Laden. And some say they'd rather see a quagmire in Iraq, and put our troops in the middle of a civil war in order to protect their sensitive, overblown egos, than admit they've orchestrated the biggest American military defeat in 100 years."

Now, what were you saying, Mr. Vice President?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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