THE BLOG
12/15/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

Cheney: Wrong on Iraq, Right on Torture?

Former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney was surprisingly persuasive in an emotionally charged Meet the Press appearance Sunday morning. All those Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky disciples that are so appalled by America's use of torture, er, enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT), should at least listen to Mr. Cheney's rationale.

As these cheap-shot artists conveniently forget, but as Mr. Cheney reminded us Sunday, the U.S. and other countries lost over 3,000 innocent lives on 9/11 at the hands of Al Qaeda. As Cheney noted, the Bush administration had, in that urgent and unprecedented context, to take aggressive actions that would: A. Kill or bring to justice those responsible for 9/11; B. Prevent another 9/11 from happening.

Yes, I still fulsomely reject Cheney's rationale for the first Iraq War. I understand his always tenuous, and now conclusively disproven, logic that, in light of 9/11, the Bush administration feared that Saddam Hussein might proffer nuclear material or weapons to Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the Iraq War was an unnecessary, costly - in money, lives and prestige - and deceptively sold detour that engendered the disintegration of Iraq. This, in turn, made the country an easy target for ISIS, the Khorasan and their death-worshipping compadres. And, no, Mr. Vice-President, leaving behind 3,000 US trainers and advisors would not have appreciably altered the Maliki-engineered Iraq implosion.

However, I do see the Vice-President's logic in deploying any legal means - and all the techniques outlined in the CIA report were vetted by the Justice Department - to break 9/11 masterminds Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who were our best leads on imminent Al Qaeda attacks.

Please keep in mind that, as defined by the Geneva Third Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Al Qaeda was correctly viewed by the Bush administration as "unlawful enemy combatants." That is, Al Qaeda and its affiliates failed to meet one or more of the following requirements as established by the Third Geneva Convention:

(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

After the time period in which most of the abuses detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on EIT occurred, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the rules of the Third Geneva Convention do, in fact, apply to all combatants, regardless of legal status. But most of those protections were not clearly available to the likes of KSM when the Bush administration was formulating its EIT program.

And, if you argue that Bush and company consciously sought out administration lawyers that would give legal cover to their dastardly deeds, then, by the same token, you also need to call out the current Democratic report on CIA torture for cherry-picking the worst abuses of the EIT program without providing full context or granting Bush era personnel a chance to rebut the report's conclusions.

As I have repeatedly noted on social media, extraordinary interrogation techniques (EIT) should not be routine U.S. policy. Not because they are by nature ineffective -- current CIA Director John Brennan said it is "unknowable" if we would have gotten the same results without them -- but because they can be so easily abused.

Nevertheless, I do not think the time-honored principles of this constitutional republic were fundamentally weakened because of anything found in the 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report, for which no Republicans were consulted. Yes, there were disturbing abuses in the EIT program, especially the wrongful detention of at least 26 prisoners at CIA overseas "black sites" (which, according to The Nation, might still be in use in countries like Somalia).

However, those who compare water-boarding, food and sleep deprivation, highly restrictive confinement and rectal feeding to Nazi Germany make a cruel mockery of the Holocaust. And forget about comparisons to the techniques of Islamic terrorists. Water-boarding? Heck, the terrorists just lop American heads off, facts be damned. And it's laughable that Communist China should be lecturing the U.S. on human rights, when they would never have the cajones to allow the creation of such a report, let alone its dissemination and open discussion.

So, instead of holding the last best hope for democracy to such impossibly high standards in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, maybe it's time we ask ourselves what we would have done to stop Al Qaeda and its ilk when -- as the World Trade Center attacks showed -- softer approaches had empirically failed.

Please remember that Democratic President Bill Clinton tried a low-key approach to Islamic terror for eight years, to no avail. After all, 9/11 was planned on his watch.

Because he bucked liberal orthodoxy on welfare reform and balanced budgets, Mr. Clinton was the only truly bipartisan, and, thus, effective, Democratic president in modern memory. Unfortunately, he was hindered in taking decisive action on Al Qaeda by his own immorality (see: Monica Lewinsky). As a result, Mr. Clinton greatly feared a Wag the Dog accusation if he took lethal action against Bin Laden. So, for this reason, and the risk of collateral damage, he hesitated when we had the Al Qaeda ringleader in our sights. And, as the great political philosopher Siddhartha Guatama Buddha said, "All who hesitate are lost."

Unfortunately, our current President -- though morally upright compared to the colossally embarrassing Mr. Clinton -- also suffers from an indecisive and overly cautious approach to foreign threats. Moreover, Mr. Obama naively believes that terrorists are rational actors, who will lessen their aggression if we just lower the U.S. footprint abroad, occasionally bad mouth our ally Israel, and show overt respect for Muslims everywhere.

Because of Obama's misapprehension of the true nature of this merciless enemy -- and his preference for detached engagement via drone strikes (and the civilian casualties, and terrorist recruitment, that come with them) -- Islamic terrorists, on his watch, have grown in number, ferocity and reach. Meanwhile, the real threat to our democratic allies in Europe, the Middle East and beyond, Russian President Vladimir Putin, takes outrageous risks because he has zero fear of the U.S. and its president.

When the world does not fear America, bad actors move into the breach. We've seen it repeatedly, but especially in the case of 9/11. By the terrorists' own admissions, Al Qaeda upped the ante with 9/11 precisely because the U.S. did comparatively nothing after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. As James Q. Wilson wisely articulated in his broken windows theory of law enforcement, when you let the bad guys get away with bad deeds, they grow more emboldened, not less.

Moreover, philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli adroitly noted in The Prince that an effective leader needs to be both loved and feared. However, as the wise Italian diplomat also wrote, it is more important to be feared. Because without fear, love is hard to accrue and maintain.

Say what you want about the man and his methods, when the indomitable "Darth" Cheney was commandeering the Oval Office, the U.S. was feared. Having onerous interrogation tools and dozens of dark sites at our disposal no doubt contributed to that fear. History shows that our often-ungrateful allies and we were safer for it.

Let me know what you think in the Comments area below.

-- @CROTTY