Since the smashing repudiation his party suffered at the hands of the American voter in the 2006 midterm elections, Dick Cheney's behavior has become palpably more secretive, combative, and scornful. The embittered interview he gave to Wolf Blitzer was the most vivid, but far from the only, instance. He seems to harbor such scorn for the democratic process that he literally no longer cares whether the answers he gives to reporters' questions even make any sense.
The interview Cheney gave to pool reporters on his plane yesterday as it returned home from Afghanistan is striking in several respects. Initially, as Dan Froomkin notes, Cheney demanded that journalists not identify him by name when reporting on the interview (but instead refer to him only as a "senior administration official"), even though Cheney himself makes unmistakably clear in the transcript that it is him.
In fact, the very first words out of his mouth were: "The reason the President wanted me to come, obviously, is because of the continuing threat that exists in this part of the world." He discussed at length the comments he made recently about Nancy Pelosi wanting to "validate Al Qaeda's strategy. So even though there was not a single security reason for the anonymity, Cheney insisted upon it anyway. The official White House transcript (linked above) refers to him only as a "senior administration official," and reporters were required to identify him only as such.
Cheney's petty demand that he not be identified -- like a petty tyrant's demand that his name never pass anyone's lips -- is just an assertion of secrecy and authoriatarian power for its own sake (even under the rule of Emperor Hirohito, "commoners were no longer forbidden to speak his name or look at his face"). But unlike Hirohito, Cheney is an elected public servant of American citizens and this attempt to prohibit journalists from attributing his own words to him is just bizarrely megalomaniacal and contemptuous, particularly in light of how he virtually went out of his way in the very first sentence to make clear that it was him.
But the substance of Cheney's remarks is even more amazing. Towards the beginning of the interview, Cheney was referring to his meetings with Prime Minister Karzai and President Musharraf when, out of the blue, he began arguing that those leaders would somehow be endangered in their fight against terrorism if we withdrew from Iraq:
I've often spoken and would reiterate again today, when you think about the debate at home, some of my friends on the other side of the aisle arguing that we need to get out of Iraq, then you go spend some time with our allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you can't help but be convinced that that would have a devastating impact, devastating consequences for what they're trying to do, what they've agreed to do in terms of their ongoing efforts with us as allies in these struggles in this part of the world.
Nothing makes less sense than that. By all accounts, the reason we face a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda in that region is because there are insufficient troops there -- a troop deficiency we have suffered since our invasion of Iraq. In fact, Cheney himself, when asked to elaborate on the claim he was making, made clear that Karzai and Musharraf's problem is a lack of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan:
One of the reasons I think Karzai was upbeat was because of the United States' economic and financial commitment. We've asked for significant sums for him this year in the budget, the commitment of an additional brigade of troops to beef up what's already there, that's all taken as a sign of our commitment, specifically to Afghanistan. They worry about that.
The idea that withdrawing from Iraq would endanger Karzai and Musharraf's fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is just laughable.
Of course, one of the principal pragmatic criticisms of the invasion of Iraq from the beginning has been that it would divert our military resources and prohibit us from stabilizing Afghanistan and truly defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda -- as we promised we would do and as our security required. As but one of countless examples, the frivolous, unserious, soft-on-terrorism Howard Dean warned in February, 2003, when explaining his reasons for opposing the invasion:
What happened to the war against al Qaeda? Why has this Administration taken us so far off track? I believe it is my patriotic duty to urge a different path to protecting America's security: To focus on al Qaeda, which is an imminent threat. . . . We must follow through on our commitments in Afghanistan to prevent that troubled land from ever again serving as a base for terrorism.
Nothing has aided Al Qaeda more than our decision to all but forget about (or at least seriously neglect) Afghanistan in order to satisfy the personal Iraq project of the President and his neonconservative comrades. That decision has helped Al Qaeda in so many ways, primarily by abandoning that region and allowing them to re-establish their sanctuary. One of the benefits of an Iraqi withdrawal would be that our military resources could be freed up to fight against actual Terrorists.
It is one thing to argue that withdrawing from Iraq would create negative consequences for Iraq. But to claim that such a withdrawal "would have a devastating impact, devastating consequences for what [Karzai and Musharraf are] trying to do" is sophistry of the most transparent order. And that is self-evidently true, because these days -- ever since Americans had the audacity to reject his party and turn it out of office -- Dick Cheney does not seem to have a high enough regard for public opinion to even conceal his scorn for it, let alone expend the energy offering even minimally coherent defenses of the Bush administration's behavior.
Dick Cheney is an increasingly embittered and reckless government official. And the further damage that can be done from a large-scale military presence in Iraq is more than ample reason why a withdrawal from Iraq -- and sooner rather than later -- is the most urgent political priority we have.