The Welcome Return of the Cheneys

by Quin Hillyer
Liz Cheney on how she and her father aim to shore up national defense

Shhh — Don’t tell anybody, because it’s a big secret: The Cheneys of Wyoming, father and daughter, were largely right about Iraq back in 2003, and they are correct now as well.

Former vice president Dick Cheney and former high-ranking State Department official Liz Cheney kicked up a predictable firestorm last week when they wrote a Wall Street Journal column blasting President Obama’s foreign and defense policies. Concurrently, they announced a new 501(c)(4) grassroots organization called The Alliance for a Strong America. This group is sure to become a target for lefty loonies and Rand Paul, who doubtless hope to trace the trail of evil money from Halliburton and other Death Star sources and expose the Alliance as a threat to the very existence of Planet Earth.

The establishment media weren’t the only ones to get a case of the vapors. Even Megyn Kelly of Fox News got into the act. “Time and again,” she said, “history has proven that you got it wrong in Iraq, sir.” With that track record, said scores of critics, how dare the Cheneys open their mouths on the subject now?

Well, it’s a darn good thing they are doing so. With American interests in tatters, it takes people of the Cheneys’ stature to force the debate beyond the media’s usual Obama-friendly platitudes. I spoke by phone with Liz Cheney last week, and she makes the case far better than I can.

Let’s consider first of all what the U.S. actually accomplished, despite a number of operational missteps, between the allied liberation of Iraq in 2003 and the end of the Bush-Cheney administration in early 2009.

“When Obama took office,” Cheney said, “what we had achieved was a stable Iraq that had a relationship with the United States that made it an ally of ours in the heart of the Middle East.” She continued:

“The threat from the radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda had been seriously diminished inside Iraq. If you go back and look at the statements this president said then, even though he opposed the surge, he admitted in effect that we had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. You no longer had a situation where you had to worry either that the government of Iraq was going to give aid to terrorists or that terrorist groups would have a foothold — a safe haven — inside Iraq. As of 2009, that was the situation. Those conditions clearly were beneficial and important to our national security.

“There were other benefits as well: You have to look first at the fact that when we went into Iraq, very shortly thereafter Moammar Qaddafi turned over the Libyan nuclear program. Clearly, that was a result of Qaddafi’s thinking he might be next. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what the threat would have been to us if Libya had nuclear weapons.

“We also were in a position at that point where our friends and allies could count on us, where they knew our word meant something.”

Cheney also could have pointed out that Qaddafi’s fear of sharing Saddam Hussein’s fate probably motivated him to turn over vast stores of other weapons and to cooperate for half a decade with American intelligence efforts, including the significant help Qaddafi provided in breaking up the A. Q. Khan nuclear network. The United States remains far safer because of these achievements.

Meanwhile, other republican “revolutions,” including those known as Orange (Ukraine), Rose (Georgia), and Cedar (Lebanon) — all partially inspired by the liberation of Iraq — won notable early successes. With a dose of luck and skill, these uprisings, early on, had a real chance of moving these regions toward greater democratization.

The Bush-Cheney foreign policy also tremendously degraded al-Qaeda worldwide, forged close alliances with Eastern European nations such as Poland, and significantly improved conditions in some South and Central American nations, most notably Colombia.

That said, what does Cheney believe Obama should do now, as the terrorist group ISIS grabs huge swaths of Iraqi territory?

She advised that Obama take an action that, coincidentally, he in fact announced (in large part) just 90 minutes after I spoke with Cheney: the insertion of a limited number of American personnel, not as ground troops, but, as Cheney puts it, “to give al-Maliki the intelligence he needs, and planners who can help him plan the military campaign against ISIS, and probably Special Forces to help with training and help commanders of the Iraqi army so they can begin to get folks back on the offense.”

But that was about the only way in which she and our bumbling president are on the same page. Unlike Obama, who dithers, Cheney articulates a clear plan and clear goals: “We need limited air strikes and Special Forces on the ground to guide the air strikes. We need to be in there, right now, in fact yesterday, helping to fight and defeat ISIS. Right now, we’ve got to be very focused on how important it is to defeat ISIS. . . . We’ve got to be sure ISIS can’t create an al-Qaeda haven in the heart of the Middle East. It’s critically important that they be defeated now.”

Meanwhile, she disagrees vehemently with Obama’s repeated insistence that Maliki must go as soon as possible, even while the ISIS offensive is seizing control of more and more of Iraq: “Don’t pressure Maliki too much right now, because it will force him even further into the hands of Iranians.” Instead, we need to help him defeat ISIS first. If we do this, “we’ll be able to have leverage with Maliki to say, ‘Look we’ve been able to help you beat back this threat,’” she says. “Then we can have the conversation with him about reconstituting and restructuring the mix of the Iraqi government — after eliminating this existential threat to Iraq and to Maliki himself.”

As usual, Cheney makes tremendous sense. With Obama’s disastrous policies ushering in tremendous troubles all over the world, it is the sort of sense that needs to be aired more fully and politically supported more effectively — hence the Cheneys’ new Alliance for a Strong America.

I asked Cheney what the group’s goals are and how it hopes to achieve them. She replies:

“Our goal is to be sort of a center of gravity for the view that American national security, number one, is critically important and, number two, that this requires a reversal of the policies of the last six years, along with a restoration of American power. We want to be a place that provides information to citizens and policymakers and candidates about our issues, to give people ammunition that they can use to engage in the debate and the discussion about a whole range of issues from foreign policy to the War on Terror and military spending. . . . We are also going to be an advocacy group and work on a grassroots level to build coalitions of people who care about these issues.

“Also, we want to make sure the Republican party maintains the mantle that has been so important in our modern history of being the party that cares deeply about a strong national defense. We feel it is very important that the Republican party not go down the path of isolationism. We are seeing a growing sense inside the party among certain people that we can be fine if we just come home and go about our business. But that would lead us down a path that would lead to more dangers, not fewer. . . . 

“We obviously care deeply about making sure that whoever our nominee is in 2016 is somebody who understands and cares deeply about a strong national defense. . . . Right now, we’re very focused on maintaining a lean operation, a small staff. We want to make sure we are using the majority of our resources on getting the message out, not on overhead. We’re based in Wyoming but working nationally.”

And why, I asked her, does she feel such urgency about defense? She answers:

“I think that one of the most devastating statistics was one that General [Raymond] Odierno went public with last October: He said that out of 42 brigades in the U.S. Army, we have about four that are combat-ready. And that’s as we watch the threats grow to the United States: Islamic terrorists, a resurgent Russia, and China. As you watch across the board our adversaries and our enemies gaining strength, the president’s response has been to reduce our footprint in the world, reduce our military, walk away. . . . Certainly, with America weakening itself across the globe, that gives our enemies hope and terrifies our allies — and that’s where we are today.”

And that’s a situation that cannot last. Let the Left bemoan the return of Darth Vader — and his daughter — all they like, the Cheneys are right to raise the alarm, and to try to do something about it.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.