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You Don't Know Dick: The Life and Lies of Dick Cheney by Donald McCarthy

There are everyday liars and pathological liars, and then there is Dick Cheney, a man formed solely out of lies and self-delusion. If he were your co-worker, he’d be an annoyance, but one that you could learn to ignore. Unfortunately, though, Cheney squirmed his way into politics and became more than a simple annoyance—he became responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Those deaths are not limited to the Iraq War, his most famous catastrophe. He has on his conscience (what little of it there is): the continuance of apartheid in South Africa, the invasion of Panama, the Persian Gulf War, the torture of prisoners, the botched occupation of Afghanistan, and, of course, the failure that was the Iraq War.

To see the disastrous impact Cheney has made on the United States’ foreign policy, much of which the average person is unaware he was even involved with, it is necessary to break down his sins one at a time. Consider this, then, an introduction to the disaster that is Dick Cheney’s career and a warning that we must be on the lookout for his kind in the future.


In 1986, Dick Cheney was a United States congressman representing Texas. He was a powerful player in Congress and had plenty of input into Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his reelection strategies, experience that would help Cheney to be selected as George W. Bush’s running mate in the 2000 election. As the dire apartheid situation in South Africa became a hot-button issue in America, Congress decided to pass a resolution asking for the end of apartheid, with sanctions against the South African government if they did not comply.

Cheney voted against the bill. When Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, even in the face of bipartisan support, and Congress tried to overturn his veto, Cheney voted against the bill again.

Cheney viewed Nelson Mandela’s organization as a group of terrorists and didn’t want to support such people, afraid of what it might unleash. I find it hard to fathom how Mandela could be viewed as a terrorist, but even if that were true, apartheid remained a devastating reality. Whether Mandela’s followers are too violent or not is irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Cheney’s stance did not change with time. During the 2000 election, Cheney was asked about this vote and he replied, “The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.” This refusal to admit his errors will be a hallmark of Cheney’s career.

This decision is even more damning in light of the Reagan administration’s continued support of ethically bankrupt leaders around the world. The Iran-Contra affair is a perfect example. Cheney had no moral issue secretly funneling weapons to Iran, nor did he have any problems with the support the Reagan administration gave to certain Afghani freedom fighters, which would later become a part of Al Queda (including Osama bin Laden), but calling for an end to apartheid and the release of political figures was apparently a step too far.

Panama and the Persian Gulf War

In May of 1989, Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, a leader with longstanding ties to the United States that were proving to be problematic, was defeated in an election. Instead of stepping down, Noriega claimed the election was rigged and that he had actually won. Noriega announced his intention to stay in power, and thanks to his military he was easily able to do so. President George H. W. Bush had long known the general—Noriega had helped him numerous times when Bush was head of the CIA. In return for information, Noriega was given money by the United States. However, by 1989, the situation in Panama was unstable, and with the strategic Panama Canal at risk, talk of American intervention began to spread.

In December of 1989, Bush authorized the invasion of Panama in a mission called Just Cause (a truly Orwellian name for a military operation, a recurring motif in all operations Cheney is involved in). At this point Dick Cheney had been named Secretary of Defense. During the invasion, Cheney did his best to make sure the press were able to see as little as possible, a move that drew criticismacross the board, but, as we’ll see time and again, criticism has little to no effect on Dick Cheney. Cheney’s desperation for secrecy here is not surprising, as the invasion of Panama was roundly criticized by other nations who accused the United States of overstepping its boundaries by once again meddling in the affairs of Latin America, and of using it as a way to ignore domestic problems, such as the limping economy.

In his time as Secretary of Defense, Cheney was also a key architect, along with George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell, of the Persian Gulf War, a war started solely for oil. Bush stated as much in August 1990 in a speech where he attempted to justify the United States’ actions: “Our nation now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence.”

The war began thanks to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The two countries had a tumultuous history, with Iraq believing it was owed part of Kuwait’s land and with Kuwait holding a massive amount of Iraqi debt. A war between these two unstable countries was hardly surprising, especially in the face of the decline of the Soviet Union, and the resulting political confusion in formerly Soviet-allied areas. The United States’ relationship with Iraq was similarly tumultuous, as Iraq had closer ties to the Soviet Union than it did to America. In the 1980s, with the end of the Cold War in sight, America tried to reach out to Iraq and sent an envoy led by Donald Rumsfeld, a long time Cheney friend, and the man who brought Cheney into the political world, to meet with Saddam Hussein. While hope for a better relationship held for a bit, it became increasingly clear that Iraq would not be a friend to the United States. Once Iraq began meddling with oil, the United States took direct action to protect its Middle Eastern assets.

Unlike the Iraq War under George W. Bush, the Persian Gulf War was never intended to lead to an invasion of Iraq. Cheney himself argued against such an action, saying it would be unwise. In a public discussion with the Discovery Institute in Seattle after the war had ended, Cheney said, “I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”

Dick Cheney’s argument about how foolish it would be to try and govern Iraq is one of the few genuinely accurate positions he took during his time working with the government. This goes completely against the neoconservative policies of the second Bush administration, when Cheney claimed that it was America’s job to spread democracy. So what changed for Cheney, an already corrupt and war hungry man, to fully embrace neoconservative policies? Was it his time at Halliburton? His exposure to neocons like Paul Wolfowitz? Likely, both.

The George W. Bush Administration

Once Bill Clinton came roaring into the White House it was clear Cheney would no longer be welcome in the oval office, and he absconded to the private sector. In 1995, Cheney became CEO of Halliburton, a company involved in the oil business, and the manufacture of oil equipment. It was a perfect fit for Cheney, a man who became enamored with protecting American oil interests at all costs during his time as Secretary of Defense, although his links with oil go all the way back to receiving a scholarship to college from an oil executive.

There is no question Cheney’s time as CEO of Halliburton was a success, and while working there, he began putting his name on neoconservative actions, along with Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and more. In 1997 he signed a statement with the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative organization that pushed the United States to increase its involvement in other countries. Cheney’s prominence at Halliburton, along with his political background, afforded him a level of respect and power, even though he was not technically in the political world.

Once selected as George W. Bush’s running mate, Cheney left Halliburton only because he claimed he wanted to show he had no conflicts of interest. It’s a laughable statement to think that a man who earned millions of dollars from a company would somehow no longer consider its interests the moment he resigned. However, Cheney was a wise choice as a Vice Presidential candidate from a political perspective. Bush constantly looked uninformed, was unable to answer even basic questions about foreign affairs, and came across as a frat boy as opposed to a candidate for the highest office in the country. Cheney brought respectability to Bush’s campaign and was a key factor in Bush winning the election.

Once he was back in power, Cheney brought his friends, including Donald Rumsfeld, into Bush’s circle. While Bush was president in name, he was surrounded by Cheney’s lackeys, and by Cheney himself. There have always been jokes about how Bush’s lack of intelligence resulted in Cheney being the true power. It’s clear that Cheney did have a remarkable amount of power, but I’m not sure it was because Bush was unintelligent, but rather because he had access only to people approved by Cheney. Bush may well have thought he was making decisions on his own, but all of his decisions were informed either by Dick Cheney or people loyal to Cheney.


Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: Rumsfeld (left) and Cheney (right) with President George W. Bush (Image courtesy Wikipedia).

After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, Cheney became obsessed with foreign policy, foregoing any domestic issues that were not relevant to national security. The half-assed invasion of Afghanistan, which featured no exit plan after the Taliban was overthrown, was not of particular interest to Cheney. He had his sights on Iraq and other countries involved in the production of oil. With the public angered and scared by the attacks, the Afghanistan War resulted in almost no pushback in the U.S., despite the fact Osama bin Laden wasn’t found and no stable government was put into place. During most of the Bush years, Afghanistan would take a backseat to concerns in Iraq, which has left the country in a state of disarray, even a decade later.

Beyond just planning an invasion of Iraq, Cheney became obsessed with going after terrorists and potential terrorists, an act that led to the allowance of torture. To this day, Cheney remains certain that the torture, although he refuses to call it that, was absolutely the correct move. In a 2013 Showtime documentary, The World According to Dick Cheney, Cheney still feels that torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation,”) was imperative and that morality was irrelevant in the post-9/11 world.

Cheney’s defense of torture is filled with lies. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was water-boarded 183 times. There remains no proof that he gave up valuable information during these session, which calls into question why he was water-boarded so many times. At what point does it just become a sadistic exercise to continue to water-board Mohammed, no matter how horrible a person he may be, when it’s yielding nothing? How could anyone defend torturing a person 183 times and still act as if the United States still had moral supremacy?

There is no doubt that torture can make someone talk—the question is whether or not what the victim is saying is truthful. Most victims will say something—anything—to make it stop. Misinformation can be as dangerous as no information, but Cheney appears to have either not considered it or just waved it away. There is a telling moment in The World According to Dick Cheneywhere he says, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.” With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder that the interrogations were violent, haphazard, and ultimately led to nothing.
By 2002 the Bush administration had already turned its vision towards Iraq, a country they knew had no involvement with Al Qaeda, even though Cheney said differently in an interview with Tim Russert. Cheney, and the rest of the administration, lied to the American public numerous times to bolster public support to move against Iraq (Mother Jones has an excellent timeline of the lies that led to, happened during, and occurred after the invasion of Iraq). Cheney went so far as to hint that Iraq may have been responsible for the Anthrax poisoning of October 2001, a claim with no basis.

Reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were not unilaterally seen as legitimate and many intelligence officers raised questions. Very few of these questions ever reached the president since he was walled off by Cheney and his friends. As far as Bush knew, Iraq was a lock—and due to a foiled assassination attempt made against his father when he was president by Saddam Hussein, he was reluctant to look too deeply into the issue.

To return to the Mother Jones article, there is an interesting tidbit about a meeting between Bush and the Saudis in April 2002:
“A Saudi delegation including head of state Prince Saud dines with George Bush and his advisers in Texas. The Saudis presents a list of requests, including that the United States will show greater concern for the Palestinians. President Bush agrees to nothing and makes no request for help on the war on terror, losing a key opportunity for diplomacy. The Saudis wonder if Bush read the very short preparatory document they had sent a few days in advance. Bush never got the document; it had been diverted to Vice President Cheney’s office.”

This is harrowing. President Bush went into a meeting uninformed because Cheney had gotten a hold of the document and did not see fit to give it to Bush. This almost reads as a borderline coup, with the Vice President of the United States deciding to take information that should have been given to the President.

Even more chilling is that the intelligence community and Joint Chiefs of Staff soon realized that a war with Iraq was inevitable, doubts about intel be damned, and gave up arguing against it. The war with Iraq would happen because Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice wanted it to happen, not because of any hard data. Neoconservative ideas were no longer political theory, they were foreign policy.

By the time the Iraq War was in full swing, Al Qaeda was no longer on the radar. The invasion of Iraq was of a great help to the terrorist organization, giving them a new example of the United States’ corruption to use in recruiting new members. There were no Al Qaeda cells in Iraq before the invasion, but afterward Al Qaeda moved in, and remains to this day. From a perspective of national security, the Iraq War was a massive failure.

Iraq itself remains in bad shape, much worse than it was with Saddam Hussein in power. As horrible as Hussein was, current day Iraq is in shambles, with various factions vying for power and a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands since the United States’ invasion.

Yet, Cheney has refused to budge on Iraq. He has spent the years since he left office telling anyone who will listen, usually FOX News, that Obama is mishandling the war on terror, and that if only Obama would listen to him, everything would be smooth sailing.

The current surge of violence in Iraq has led to another round of lies from Cheney. His recent appearances on FOX News and ABC News are perfect examples of how in denial he remains about what happened thanks to his neoconservative policies.

You Don’t Know Dick

Dick Cheney first entered the political world in 1969 thanks to Donald Rumsfeld who appointed Cheney as part of his staff. It was a huge start to his career since Rumsfeld was the Director of Economic Opportunity and reported to President Nixon. In a truly unfortunate turn of events, Rumsfeld and Cheney remained untouched by the Watergate scandal and became close advisors to President Gerald Ford. After initiating the “Halloween Massacre,” where many of Fords officials were fired so the Ford administration could step more to the right, Cheney became a key background player and was soon appointed Chief of Staff. By the time the election rolled around, Cheney had the honor of becoming Ford’s campaign manager.


Donald Rumsfeld, President Gerald Ford, and Cheney in 1975 (Image courtesy Wikipedia).

When Cheney won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1978 he’d already had 9 years of experience in DC and was arguably a more powerful figure before becoming a representative than he was when he was actually an elected official. His years as a representative of Texas were fruitful in terms of shoring up alliances and gaining experience, but his years outside of elected office were much more meaningful. His post-congress gig as Secretary of Defense offered him a direct hand in shaping foreign policy and his time during Halliburton did not slow down his meddling in foreign policy, especially as his ties with neoconservatives grew stronger and his experience with oil related industries made him appear to be an expert on all foreign policy matters concerning oil.

Cheney was again elected by the people in 2000, but here we have an unusual circumstance. Cheney was elected Vice President, but we know that he overstepped his boundaries on multiple occasions and not just in the ways I touched upon above. Cheney also gave the order on 9/11 to shoot down hijacked American airplanes without conferencing first with President Bush. His approach to spying on Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 eventually became of great concern to Bush when he realized how far Cheney had gone and in his second term he began to roll back and deal with Congress, much to Cheney’s annoyance. Even at the end of his administration, when Bush was trying to distance himself from Cheney, Cheney still tried every move he could manage to force Bush to pardon his friend and political ally Scooter Libby. In front of others, Cheney accused Bush of leaving a “good soldier” on the battlefield. Keep in mind that this “good soldier” revealed a CIA agent’s cover solely because her husband was arguing against the Iraq War.

What I find interesting about Cheney’s government career is that it began in 1969 and continues straight through to today. That’s 45 years. Of those 45 years he served 9 as a congressman and 8 as Vice President. For only 17 of his 45 years was Cheney actually elected by the people of America. Up until 2000, Cheney’s most powerful years were those in which he was appointed by Republican officials, not elected by voters. In other words, Cheney was answerable to only a few people during much of his career, and he made sure he was always in a position to excise anyone who might be a political threat to him.

Cheney’s cunning cannot be understated and I have no doubt the man is a genius of some kind. What I find most alarming is how effective he was at establishing policy while working behind the scenes. It was Cheney who outlined much of the Ford presidency’s policy. It was Cheney who was involved in detailing many of the plans for the Persian Gulf War. It was Cheney who was involved in America once again playing in Latin America politics in order to remain a dominant world power. Even when we look at him as Vice President we see someone who overstepped the role he was elected for. Add to that the fact that for much of the Bush presidency no one knew where Cheney was because he was always scuttled away to a secure location. He gave few speeches and rarely appeared in public despite the fact that he was dictating much of America’s foreign policy.

The extent of Cheney’s secret power is quite disturbing. He has been involved in numerous wars and multiple foreign policy disasters. His actions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands—non-Americans and Americans, both. During all this time he managed to stay behind the scenes, with few people knowing just how powerful he was. In a way, Cheney is a Shakespearean political figure who manipulates with ease and is uninterested in self-reflection. The difference is that the tragic flaw of self-delusion which so many Shakespearean characters struggle had has not led to Cheney’s downfall, as it did with Macbeth or Richard III. Somehow, Cheney has managed to come out on top time after time. His story is a warning about how powerful the backroom player can be, especially when they decide to forego ethics, and master the art of hiding in the shadows.

Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is