Attack of the Cheneys

Former Vice President Dick Cheney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Matthew Duss is national security editor for the blogs Think Progress and The Wonk Room at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

I'm sure not many fathers think about whether their children will defend them one day from accusations that they ordered torture. Dick Cheney would probably be one of the few who has--and how nice that he got that lucky. Since her father left office, Liz Cheney has been his most visible and effective advocate. She's given speeches at conservative gatherings, written op-eds for publications like the Wall Street Journal and made dozens of television appearances, all aimed at defending her father's record and carrying his standard. And occasionally she finds herself having to claim that a technique developed by torturers as a method of torture (waterboarding) was not really torture when her father approved it.

To a lesser extent than his daughter, but still at an unprecedented level for a former vice president, Dick Cheney has also taken a highly public role, popping up regularly to attack the Obama administration's national security decisions. This past May, explaining her father's inordinately high profile, Liz said on MSNBC, "I don't think he planned to be doing this, you know, when they left office in January," but the administration's policy shifts, as well as the concern that "perhaps [Obama] would even be prosecuting former members of the Bush administration," had necessitated the former VP's re-emergence. During this period, the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen counted "12 appearances, in nine and a half days, spanning four networks" for the younger Cheney.

The right's most famous father-daughter act has also been active behind the scenes. Liz has allied with neoconservative mover Bill Kristol to found Keep America Safe, infamous of late for its ads attacking as traitorous Justice Department lawyers who once "represented or advocated for terrorist detainees." The ad was so scurrilous that even Republican lawyers and Bush administration officials like former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Solicitor General Ted Olson condemned it. But whatever blowback the neocon attack machine may suffer for this particular overreach, the "Department of Jihad" smear is nonetheless a startling declaration that they just don't give a damn. (After all, what's a bit of rank dishonesty in an effort to head off almost certain Islamofascist doom?) With the Cheneys on board, neocons have become increasingly brazen in their accusations that President Obama is "inviting the next attack" by not sufficiently embracing the fact that "we are at war."

No question about it: Liz and Dick Cheney are on a mission, but just what is that mission? Some of it is clearly personal: in Dick's case, it's about burnishing his legacy; for Liz, there's the possibility of a run for Congress or the Senate. But in order to reposition themselves to retake the reins of power, the Cheneys must rescue the "global war on terror" from the ash heap of history, and they're doing this by playing the one card they've got: fear. Their larger goal, then, is to resuscitate the neocons' post-September 11 vision of a world in which the United States, unbound by rules or reality, imposes its will on friend and enemy alike.

Composer Frank Zappa once said of jazz, "It's not dead, it just smells funny." The same could be said of neoconservatism. The taint of Iraq continues to cling. Despite a sustained public relations effort to promote the Iraq surge as a vindication of the war, a January CNN poll reported that 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the war. Even though the Obama administration has retained elements of Bush's anti-terrorism programs--including a possible decision to try the September 11 conspirators in military tribunals rather than civilian courts--the neoconservative conceit of a "global war on terror" has largely been cast aside by policy-makers and the military in favor of a more nuanced view of who our enemies are, how they operate and how we can stop them.

It turns out, however, that being disastrously wrong on the most significant foreign policy questions of the era is no barrier to continued influence in American politics. Even though their bong-hit theories about transforming the Middle East at the point of an American gun retain about as much popular appeal as E. coli, the neocons continue to impact US foreign policy debates through an entrenched network of think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute), publications (The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review), supportive editorial boards (the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal) and, of course, Fox News.