Truth Or Consequences

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, 11-21-05. Cheney toned down the attack on House Democrat John Murtha - who earlier drew White House criticism for calling for a withdrawal from Iraq - saying that Murtha is a "patriot" who is engaging in legitimate debate.
For a brief moment at a think-tank speech here in Washington a few weeks back, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to be unholstering the same, classic loose-lips-sink-ships argument that wartime White Houses have been firing at their critics since the Royal Marines burned James Madison's wartime White House nearly to the ground: When American soldiers start getting shot at overseas, the kind of partisan misrepresentation and outright falsehood to which we routinely subject our chief executive when we are at peace should simply stop. For, Cheney suggested, "untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself."

So one might argue, at any rate. And so the vice president himself might now be willing to argue about terrorism and Iraq, he acknowledged--were it not for his absolute confidence in the resolve of our frontline troops. So fine and true is "the character of the United States armed forces," Cheney advised his audience, that no amount of civilian griping back home can possibly defeat them.

There are two things worth noting about the argument Dick Cheney is "unwilling" to make concerning White House critics and troop morale. The first is that the problem is not the morale of forward-stationed U.S. servicemen, which has remained remarkably high. If the war is to be lost, it will be a collapse of stateside civilian morale that loses it. Everything else is secondary; domestic public opinion is almost all that matters, as the vice president, of all people, must surely be aware.

The second thing worth noting about Cheney's not very significant argument is the thrilled, have-you-no-decency-sir reaction it's inspired from his opponents. A plausible guess can be ventured why they are so thrilled. In nowadays America, dissenters from executive-branch national security policy like nothing better than to cast themselves as Joseph Welch--bravely holding fast to honor and righteousness even as some Senator McCarthy figure at the White House impugns their patriotism. But the play can't start until the impugning does. So everyone's impatient to feel impugned. That speech by the vice president? It'll do. "Ugly" and "demagogic," huffs columnist Michael Kinsley. "After all, if untruthful charges against the president hurt the war effort . . . then those charges will hurt the war effort even more if they happen to be true. So [Cheney is] saying in effect that any criticism of the president is essentially treason."