Prior to George W. Bush’s decision to choose Dick Cheney to head up his search for a running mate–a quest which ended on Tuesday, July 25th with the announcement that Cheney himself had landed the job–for most Americans, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate was at best a dimly remembered figure from the bygone days of the Gulf war.

Gulf War Myths, Gulf War Realities

If you remember Dick Cheney at all, it is probably from his supporting role in the “Dick and Colin Show” (my title, not theirs), that slick exercise in televised spin control that kept America mesmerized during the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict. The show was so popular that it achieved the ultimate “preemptive strike,” displacing the afternoon soap operas on more than one occasion.

While Colin Powell had the star power, Cheney added a certain low-key, matter-of-fact credibility to the Bush administration’s effort to sell the Gulf War as an antiseptic, “humane” conflict.

To hear Dick and Colin tell it, every U.S. weapon worked as advertised, “collateral damage” (i.e., deaths of innocent men, women, and children) was limited, and the successful coalition effort to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had ushered in a new post-cold war order in which tyrants and human rights abusers would no longer go unpunished.

Those of us who stayed tuned to the Gulf War story after it dropped out of prime time soon learned that the Cheney/Powell PR machine had badly distorted the fundamental military and political facts of the conflict.

Militarily, it ended up that U.S. “wonder weapons” hadn’t been so wonderful after all. MIT weapons scientist Theodore Postol and the Israeli military persuasively demonstrated that the “star” of the air war, Raytheon’s Patriot missile, was successful in intercepting Scud missiles just 10 to 40% of the time, not the 90%-plus rate broadcast by Cheney and Powell. (Ironically, just in the past year, Raytheon has been forced to recall as defective hundreds of upgraded Patriot PAC-2 missiles that it had sold to U.S. allies in the wake of the Gulf War).

Iraqi military casualties were much smaller than the Bush administration had originally claimed, in large part because tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers–exhausted from eight years of war with Iran and fed up with Saddam Hussein’s empty promises to take care of their basic needs–decided to “vote with their feet” by beating a hasty retreat from the front lines. Meanwhile, deaths of Iraqi non-combatants from disease and hunger spawned by the destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure were much higher than originally acknowledged. More than nine years after the Bush administration’s glorious victory in Iraq, the flood of unnecessary civilian deaths continues, driven by the Clinton/Gore policy of stiff economic sanctions punctuated by periodic outbursts of massive aerial bombardment.

On the global political front, needless to say, the bombardment of Iraq did nothing to stop mass killing and repression in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, southeastern Turkey, or East Timor. In fact, in many of these places, the United States armed and trained the perpetrators of ethnic slaughter in keeping with the “Cheney Doctrine” of “arms for our friends and arms control for our enemies.” This deeply hypocritical stance helped enrich U.S. arms merchants, but only at the unacceptably high cost of undermining the prospects for arms control and enduring peace in the Middle East, East Asia, and southern Africa.

Yellow ribbons and self-congratulatory rhetoric aside, the main military and diplomatic consequences of the 1991 Gulf War have been the perpetuation of the myth of “war without casualties” (U.S. casualties, that is); the emergence of the United States as the world’s leading arms merchant; and the weakening of diplomatic and multilateral approaches to peacekeeping and conflict prevention in favor of a series of ad hoc, U.S.-led “posses” that generally enter zones of conflict too late and use the wrong tools once they get there (e.g., bombing from 15,000 feet as an antidote to ethnic repression in Kosovo).

So far, none of the U.S. principals of the 1991 Persian Gulf War have been called to account for the lies and manipulation they engaged in before, during, and after the conflict. On the contrary, they have profited from the war. And more than any other player in the war, Cheney had to reap his windfall the old-fashioned way, by exploiting conflicts-of-interest to line his own pockets.

Unlike his more charismatic cohorts, Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, Cheney didn’t get a multi-million dollar book contract after the Gulf War. And no one was hounding him to run for president (or vice president, for that matter) in the wake of the war, as was the case with Colin Powell. Instead, Dick Cheney, the man who helped direct a war that was largely aimed at keeping “our oil supplies” out of the hands of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime, decided to get into the oil business, just as his longstanding friends in the Bush administration had done. Wall Street analysts make no bones of the fact that Cheney’s new employer, the oil industry services firm Halliburton, hired him NOT for his experience in the industry (he had none), but rather for the doors he could open for the firm in key Middle Eastern markets (including, but not limited to, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).

Cheney has done a damned good job of opening doors, helping the firm pursue new business opportunities with old friends (like Saudi Arabia) and “states of concern” (like Iraq and Iran) alike. He also engineered Halliburton’s purchase of the construction giant Brown and Root, which is involved in everything from providing security at U.S. embassies to building military bases for the United States and its closest allies. This in turn allowed Cheney to trade on his connections inside the Pentagon to boost the firm’s level of military contracts to more than $650 million per year–enough to bring it into the ranks of the department’s top 20 contractors in FY 1999, up from 73rd in FY 1998. Not a bad few years’ work for a guy everyone assumed had vanished into the woodwork after his 15 minutes of fame expired in the spring of 1991.

Aside from offering reassurance to the Pentagon and corporate America that “young” George W. (who at 54, is actually only five years younger than Cheney) won’t do anything rash or stupid, Cheney brings another key asset to the ticket: after a distinguished (albeit extremely conservative) career that has included stints as President Ford’s chief of staff, a well-regarded member of Congress from Wyoming, and Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration, Dick Cheney is actually qualified to serve as president of the United States. The same cannot be reliably stated for George W. Bush himself, who has served one term and change as the governor of Texas, a state whose system gives so little power to the governor that anyone who wants to get anything done goes first to either the legislative leadership, the comptroller, or the lieutenant governor (who presides over the legislature). In fact, Bush/Cheney looks a lot like Bush/Quayle in reverse, with George W. representing the role of the potatoe-spelling pinhead and Dick Cheney playing the polite but accomplished career politician with a resume longer than your arm.

Despite his reputation as a moderate, Dick Cheney is in reality one of the most conservative political figures of the modern era of American politics. During his Congressional career as Wyoming’s member of the House of Representatives in the 1980s, he pulled off the conservative equivalent of the “daily double:” a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union, paired with a 0% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. That put him in company with such right-wing luminaries as Jack Kemp, Dick Armey, and Dan Burton, and slightly to the right of Newt Gingrich, who got a whopping 5% ADA rating. Cheney’s conservative votes include staunch support for aid to the Contras, opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and opposition to common sense gun safety measures such as a ban on “cop killer” bullets and an end to the manufacture of plastic guns that can fool airport security devices (a vote on which he was joined by only 3 House colleagues).

His record as a moderate stems largely from his tenure as George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, when he presided over significant cutbacks in U.S. troops and opposed several unnecessary weapons programs, such as the Navy’s A-12 “stealth” fighter plane and the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey. Clearly, the defense industry harbored no grudge, as Cheney’s wife has sat on the Board of Directors of defense giant Lockheed Martin for years. Former Reagan administration Pentagon official Lawrence J. Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that Cheney’s image as a “budget cutter” is vastly over-rated. During his tenure at the helm of the Pentagon, the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet troops were pulled out of Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself dissolved into its constituent republics. Yet despite the disappearance of its cold war adversary, Cheney wanted to cut the U.S. military budget by only 10 percent over a multi-year period, and was only convinced to cut deeper by Colin Powell, who argued that anything less than a phased-in reduction of 25% would be laughed off of Capitol Hill.

To his credit, Cheney seems to be more closely allied with respected, internationalist Republicans like former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz and former Bush National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, rather than right-wing true believers like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. This difference could be crucial, since it was folks like Shultz and Scowcroft who helped convince the Reagan and Bush administrations to trade off distorted visions of a leak-proof missile defense for real, negotiated reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. If he were to use his inherent caution to put George W.’s harebrained National Missile Defense scheme on the slow track while nuclear arms reductions are resumed in earnest after an eight year hiatus during the Clinton term, he could make a positive mark on U.S. security policy. And if his newfound experience in the oil business makes him more open to normalizing relations with former “rogue states” like Iran and Iraq, all the better. But before we can gauge how Cheney might perform as vice president, we will need a much more vigorous and detailed foreign policy debate than either Al Gore or George Bush have offered thus far. There’s no time like the present, on the eve of the Republican convention, to get started on that debate.

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