Now that the hoopla on the Cheney shooting has begun to die down it is time to focus on the most serious issue it symbolizes: Mr. Cheney's weakening the U.S. and strengthening our enemies over the past 5 years. Just as he bungled his hunting, he has bungled every major security issue he has handled, making his incompetence as great a threat to U.S. national security as Osama Bin Laden's malevolence. The shooting symbolizes the central issue of the remaining three years of the Bush Presidency: whether Mr. Bush will continue to allow Mr. Cheney to do more harm.
On a human level, one can only feel sympathy for Vice-President Cheney and his victim. I once inadvertently hurt a child 15 years ago while playing, and the incident still haunts me.
On a political level, however, the issue is not that Mr. Cheney is too conservative, secretive, vulgar, mean-spirited or violent, although he is certainly all of these. It is that he has totally failed Mr. Bush in achieving the President's own goal of defeating terrorism.
It is generally agreed that Mr. Cheney is "the most powerful Vice-President in history." He is so powerful because the President has heeded Cheney's advice on terrorism, Iraq, military matters, Executive Power and energy. As a direct result of this exercise of power by Mr. Cheney:
-- the United States is far weaker and our enemies far stronger than at the time since 9/11, and we are in far greater danger of another attack that could kill many more Americans and threaten democracy as we've known it. As the two former National Security Council anti-terrorism staffers and authors of The Next Attack -- endorsed by former President Bill Clinton -- put it, "We are losing. Four years and two wars after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America is heading for a repeat of the events of that day, or perhaps something worse. Against our most dangerous foe, our strategic position is weakening." And as the ex-Republican Governor Mr. Bush appointed to head his own 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean, put it a few months ago, "It seems that the safety of the American people is not very high on Washington's priority list."
-- Mr. Bush is mistrusted by a majority of the American people at home, hated abroad, and is thus incapable of functioning effectively as either a domestic or world leader of the war on terror. His is a failed Presidency by the criterion he himself set: success in fighting a "global war on terror."
Although there are signs that Mr. Bush may be listening more to Secretary of State Rice now on Israel and Iran, Mr. Cheney remains the dominant force on many of the Administration's central issues: terrorism, Iraq, the U.S. military, Executive Power, and energy. Mr. Bush faces any number of extremely important decisions in these areas over the next 3 years, including whether and/or how to try and continue his failed occupation of Iraq with fewer U.S. troops; how to deal with a possible civil war in Iraq; whether to continue torturing and imprisoning people without evidence, even though doing so geometrically increases the number of our enemies and their desire to do us harm; and preventing another 9/11.
If the President continues to rely on Mr. Cheney for advice on these issues, after the Vice-President's advice to date has practically destroyed his Administration, it will suggest that Mr. Bush is incapable of functioning on his own as President.
Despite this, however, there is an urgent national need for Mr. Bush -- or someone far wiser, like his father -- to find a way to stop Mr. Cheney from doing any further harm. This will be no easy task. When Bill Clinton lost Congress in 1994, he and his wife brought in Dick Morris and disowned Stan Greenberg and George Stephanopolous, driving the latter to a psychiatrist and anti-depressants. Despite far more serious blows to his own Administration, however, Mr. Bush has thus far lacked the psychological strength to disentangle himself from Mr. Cheney.
How exactly the Vice-President can be dumped is unclear at this point. Peggy Noonan, for example, has suggested that Administration higher-ups might dream up an anti-Cheney coup over cocktails in Reston. But who are these higher-ups? Mr. Bush's priority on "loyalty" in his subordinates has resulted in an inner circle consisting of mediocre sycophants and political hacks. Mr. Cheney is by far the strongest figure in the Administration and it is not clear who would risk his or her own job by taking him on.
Of course, it may be some time -- perhaps until the next Woodward book should he try to redeem his tarnished reputation by telling the truth about the Bush Administration -- before we learn the exact nature of the Bush-Cheney relationship, e.g. whether the President so defers to Mr. Cheney because of his lack of knowledge on military and foreign matters, and/or because Mr. Cheney psychologically dominates or manipulates him, and/or because beneath the outer bluster the President is as emotionally disengaged and insecure as he so often reveals himself to be.
Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, however, one basic fact seems clear: no superior in their right mind would continue to rely on a subordinate who has been as spectacularly wrong as has Mr. Cheney. Mr. Bush's continuing to depend upon him -- even after the indictment of Mr. Cheney's chief of staff for actions Mr. Cheney clearly sanctioned, and now even after he has become a national laughingstock for shooting Mr. Whittington -- raises serious questions about Mr. Bush's ability to function as President in his own right.
It may have made sense for Mr. Bush to originally turn to Mr. Cheney for advice, particularly following 9/11. Mr. Bush's prior experience -- failing at business, fronting for a baseball team, and a Governorship notable only for a small education program and large numbers of people executed -- clearly did not prepare him to cope with 9/11. It was only natural that he would turn to Mr. Cheney -- a former Presidential Chief of Staff, Gulf War Secretary of Defense, oil company CEO, and man of vast certitude, decisiveness and ruthlessness -- for advice.
But now, after having received four and a half years of consistently bad advice from Mr. Cheney, there can be no rational reason for Mr. Bush to continue relying upon him. No one has done more to destroy Mr. Bush's effectiveness, credibility, reputation and legacy than his own Vice-President:
-- Mr. Cheney's advice has led to a geometric increase in terrorists committed to killing Americans around the world, reduced the credibility of the U.S. military as a deterrent, and a failure to protect our chemical plants, ports, other transportation systems, and shipping containers possibly carrying nuclear bombs, at home.
-- Mr. Cheney's advice on Iraq has made Mr. Bush's legacy dependent on homicidal maniacs like Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, vastly increased the danger of terror attacks on Americans, brought Iraq to the brink of civil war, encouraged Iran to pursue a nuclear bomb, destablized pro-U.S. regimes throughout the Muslim world, weakened our global alliances, and made the U.S. hated around the globe. Mr. Cheney misled the President, as well as the world, on Saddam's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, his ties with Al Qaeda, and the degree to which the U.S. would be welcomed in Iraq.
-- Mr. Cheney misadvised Mr. Bush on appointing Donald Rumsfeld, and the two have totally mismanaged the U.S. military. Their gross derelictions of duty -- ignoring the advice of their Army Chief of Staff to invade with sufficient troops, disbanding the Iraqi army, failing to achieve order, failing to adequately train or protect U.S. troops, neglecting to secure huge ordinance warehouses that have fallen into the hands of insurgents, over-extending the U.S. army and National Guard to the breaking-point, and allowing torture inflaming our enemies -- would long ago have seen them fired in disgrace in any other country on earth (and imprisoned in some).
-- Mr. Cheney's advice is largely responsible for Mr. Bush's no longer being trusted by a majority of the American people, which has crippled his ability to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Mr. Cheney's obsessive demand that Mr. Bush have the unilateral "Executive Power" to imprison people without evidence or trial, conduct torture on a scale never before seen in American history, and spy on American citizens, not only violates the Constitution and international law. It has needlessly divided the American people at home and made Mr. Bush one of the most hated figures in the world, a key factor in his inability to serve as a world leader.
-- Mr. Cheney's advice on energy policy has now been repudiated by the President himself in his latest State of the Union address. Mr. Bush's stated commitment to breaking our "addiction to oil" directly contradicts not only the advice but Mr. Cheney's gross mismanagement of Administration energy policy over the past 5 years.
If the country is to break its addiction to oil, Mr. Bush will first have to break his addiction to Mr. Cheney. Whether and how that happens is one of the single most important issues presently facing Mr. Bush and America.