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Tom Engelhardt Headshot

Rome, Mad Emperors, and All That in 21st Century America

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Rest assured of one thing: He was the only American vice president ever to travel regularly with "a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the backseat of his car. You could say that he took his weapons of mass destruction seriously, and perhaps even infer from Jane Mayer's account of his anxieties back in September 2001 that he had something of a paranoid view of a world he believed wanted to do him harm in a weapons-of-mass-destructive way.

It was in this mood that he and the president he served decided to show that world just who was who and leaped, post-9/11 -- not to put the matter too modestly -- to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. (At home, they were planning for a Pax Republicana coast to coast until hell froze over.) In their imaginations, and some of their official documents as well, they dreamed of reorganizing the whole planet in ways that would more than rival any imperial power since Rome went down amid mad emperors and barbarian invasions. In the fabulous future they didn't hesitate to document, no power or bloc of powers would be allowed to challenge the United States for years, decades, eons to come. And their means of doing this? The U.S. military, which the president took to calling "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." That high-tech force, romanticized and idolized by administration fundamentalists, turned out to be the only tool in their toolkit, all they believed was necessary to transform Earth into a first-class American protectorate.

Give credit to George W. Bush and his more-than-right-hand man, Dick Cheney, the vice president who essentially nominated himself: There's never been a duo like them in the White House. Cheney, in particular, was a geopolitical visionary, his planet-encompassing vision fueled by his experiences in the energy trade and by a Cold Warrior's urge to roll back ever further the remnants of the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. He was also, as Mark Danner illustrates, mad in his vision and desperately wrong. But again, give him and his president credit: Before they were done mistaking military for economic power, they had punched a gaping hole through the heart of the Middle East and, as Arab League head Amr Moussa warned at the time, had driven directly through "the gates of hell" dreaming of a path strewn with "sweets and flowers" and lined with grateful Iraqis who would greet them as liberators on their way to Tehran.

Before they could complete their global damage, however, the adults were brought in, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. At his congressional nomination hearings in December 2006, Gates put the vice president, his ever-endangered heart still pounding, in his political grave by describing the particular nightmare that would ensue from any U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The signal was clear enough. If Dick Cheney couldn't pull the trigger on Iran, no one else would (despite much talk in the years to come about all "options" remaining on "the table"). In fact, 2007 should probably be considered the beginning of the Obama years, a time when top officials with no vision at all of how the planet should function raced like so many overworked firemen from the scene of one global blaze to another (many originally set by Cheney and Bush).

Today, in his essay "In the Darkness of Dick Cheney," Mark Danner reminds us, as he did in his remarkable three-part series at the New York Review of Books on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald ("stuff happens") Rumsfeld, that if the cast of characters from those first post-9/11 years is gone, we still live in the ruins they created and the special darkness they embraced.