Politics & Policy

American Leadership Isn’t Optional

Cheney at the American Enterprise Institute, September 10, 2014 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Our allies still look to the U.S. in any matter where freedom is on the line or security in the balance.

Editor’s Note: This morning, former vice president Dick Cheney delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “9/11 and the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy.” The following is the text of the speech as prepared for delivery.

Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you, and I appreciate your hospitality, as always. Being a fellow and trustee at AEI has always put me in the company of some of the people I like and admire most in this city. The American Enterprise Institute is one of those places where serious matters receive serious attention, and that’s the spirit that brings me here this morning.

By coincidence President Obama will be speaking later today on the situation in Iraq, which has quickly become the most pressing of many national-security issues.

Among all the various concerns and issues that compete for our time and energy in Washington, nothing matters more than the security of the United States. Nothing. Everything else we do depends on our safety from the dangers of the world.

And of all the things our federal government attempts to do these days, the one obligation that only it can do is defend the nation. It is a defining duty of the president as commander-in-chief under Article Two, and the test of leadership that matters more than any other.

The finest of our presidents have measured up to that test, and I’ve seen some of them in action. It has been my privilege over the years to play a part in some of the most critical national-security decisions we have faced. There have been five Republican presidents since Dwight Eisenhower. I worked for four of them, and worked closely with the fifth, President Reagan, as a member of the House Republican leadership during his years in office.

These five leaders I’ve observed accomplished great things, often despite great difficulties, and the same could be said of others in my lifetime going back to Roosevelt and Truman.

Next year will commence the eighth decade of what we still call the post-War era. In that time we have seen one of the supreme achievements of human history — a structure of security formed in the years after the Second World War and underwritten, guaranteed, and defended by the United States of America.

What makes it all real, in the end, is the fact of American military superiority. Without that, we would be just one more nation with good intentions and strong opinions. It is not some arbitrary cycle of history that made the post-War era what it has been. It is American power, and American leadership.

And before we credit the wisdom of even our best statesmen and diplomats in this long era, always remember where the greatest credit truly belongs. It belongs to generations of men and women who gave the best years of their lives, or laid down their lives, in brave service to our country.


Against this backdrop, and five and a half years into the presidency of Barack Obama, a few fundamental problems are evident. He has served in office now for longer than 26 of his predecessors. So it’s hardly too early to draw conclusions — about his conduct of foreign policy, and about the basic ideas and assumptions that he has followed.

We know what those notions are, because at times the president has been, not only clear about them, but quite emphatic. He has demonstrated his own distrust for American power as a force for good in the world. Five years ago this month, he put it this way to the United Nations. Quote: “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

This is one sample from a whole collection of such sayings that seem to regard American influence as a problem to be solved in the world, rather than a solution to be offered. However we interpret President Obama’s words, they are a far cry from John Kennedy’s vision of Americans as the “watchmen on the walls of world freedom” with “the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.”

Compare those presidential declarations, and it’s more than a difference in time that we’re dealing with. They are two radically different outlooks on the world and on America’s responsibilities. And when you have a president whose primary concern is never to, quote, “elevate” America, it’s no surprise that we also have a defense secretary in a serious state of alarm. “The world,” as Secretary Hagel said a few weeks ago, “is exploding all over.”

I’m here to tell you that there’s a connection between these problems — between a disengaged president and some very volatile situations abroad. In a few hours, we’ll hear what he has in mind for the terrorist onslaught in Iraq. We can hope for — and we should look for — signs of a forceful, bold and immediate strategy to defeat ISIS. We can say already, however, that such a plan would mark an abrupt and dramatic departure from the record thus far.

This is the same president, after all, who not long ago was assuring the nation that “the tide of war is receding.” Those words suited his purpose at the time, in 2012. And yet of course that was the very time when dangers now obvious to all were gathering. In fact, all that receded from Iraq and elsewhere was American power, influence, and leadership. And if you think that American withdrawal marks an ebbing of conflict and a return to peace, then consider the new jihadist caliphate and all that will now be needed to clear it out.

A few months ago I traveled through the Middle East visiting with old friends in governments in Arab nations and in Israel. Again and again, I heard the same question — just what is Barack Obama doing? How could he so carelessly sacrifice America’s hard-won gains in the region, walking away from friends, leaving violent enemies to fill the void? Like many in our own country, these friends of America cannot understand why the president was so insistent on withdrawing American leadership just when it was needed most.

A policy of nonintervention can be just as dogmatic as its opposite, and this president has seemed at times only more sure of himself as he is disproved by events. Syria is just one example. After the regime used chemical weapons against thousands of children, the administration took a stance of what you might call principled indifference: We cared, went the message — just not enough to do anything about it. And never mind the high-minded warnings and meaningless red line.

So often, President Obama responds to crises abroad by announcing all the things he will not do — and here, again, we can only hope the pattern ends today. Too often, threats and aggression have been met with stern declarations of inaction by the United States, supported by lengthy explanations of our inability to shape events. And inaction by America spells opportunity for our adversaries, as in the case of Syria, where we saw the Russians move in for their own advantage.

Meanwhile, of late, Vladimir Putin has moved in to take Crimea, subjected Ukraine to coercion and intimidation, and generally worked to frustrate American objectives at every turn. This all goes down, as the administration likes to put it, as “19th century behavior” — an expression of disapproval that doesn’t quite translate at the Kremlin.

They play a rough game over there, and they don’t much care to which century we might ascribe their conduct. The test for some players in this world is simply this: Can they get away with what they want to do? If they can, they will, end of discussion.

We all know, for example, what the mullahs in Iran want most of all — to acquire nuclear weapons. Try to imagine life in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter, if we and our friends ever permitted that day to come. The regime in Iran gives close study to every sign, in every context, of American resolve — or to its absence.

Draw a bright red line for Assad, and then let him pass right over it with impunity, and your problems don’t end in Syria. In Tehran, too, they’ve been watching you tested and they’re not impressed.

Whether it’s outright enemies like the regimes in Iran and North Korea, or strategic rivals like Russia and China, hostile people are drawing conclusions from the choices we make. They take note of the hard things we do as the pre-eminent democracy, and of the hard things we finish. This has been a fact of life for every American president going back to FDR, and the finest of them knew how to choose a message of strength. I think of Truman and Kennedy handling crises in Berlin, Nixon standing by Israel in the Six-Day War, or the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s — American resolve in unmistakable terms.

Or I think of 2003, a few days after Saddam Hussein fell into American custody. Among others who were paying attention was the dictator of Libya, who let it be known that we could come in and take away his entire inventory of nuclear components, which we did. What kind of weapons might Gadhafi have had by 2011, if he hadn’t surrendered his nuclear materials to us long before? And when the uprisings came his way, with real trouble outside his compound, how might the dictator have maintained his power?


They watch what our leaders do, the enemies of America, and they listen to what our leaders say. And a few of our most single-minded enemies might well have wondered why, in recent years, President Obama was talking about the terrorists being on the run, in retreat, when precisely the opposite was happening.

By the estimate of Seth Jones at the RAND Corporation, “Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters, and a tripling of attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates.” In other words, while the president was claiming the tide of war was receding and core al-Qaeda had been decimated, the threat was actually increasing. From Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, over to Pakistan, all the way down to Somalia, and west to Nigeria — in various places under various names, a whole new wave of jihadists was on the rise.

Likewise, we have the recent account of General Mike Flynn, who just stepped down as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He said, “When asked if terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no.’ When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say, ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are just flat out lying.”

The general’s point is that the terrorist threat, far from receding like a tide, has been advancing and multiplying. And the Rand report was done before the rise of ISIS and the establishment of a caliphate — a new terrorist safe haven — covering vast territory in the heart of the Arab world.

ISIS is now attracting thousands of radicals from Europe and potentially hundreds from the United States — eager to join in the slaying of non-believers. A fair number are doubtless intending to return home to Britain, France, and elsewhere — that is, unless their Western passports are canceled, which ought to happen immediately. These are but a few of the features that make the situation today one of the most dangerous we have faced certainly in my lifetime — and far more dangerous than the administration has been willing to admit.

When the president speaks today, we need only to listen carefully for a true understanding of the nature and extent of this danger. And let me suggest a few markers to keep in mind — the basic signs of serious strategic thinking.

A realistic strategy has to recognize that ISIS is a grave, strategic threat to the United States. The situation is dire and defeating these terrorists will require immediate, sustained, simultaneous action across multiple fronts. Phasing in our actions will not suffice. Such a strategy will only prolong the conflict and increase the casualties.

ISIS does not recognize a border between Syria and Iraq — so neither should we. We should immediately hit them in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers, and lines of communication wherever we find them. We should provide significantly increased numbers of military trainers, special-operations forces, an intelligence architecture, and air power to aid the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga in their counteroffensive against ISIS.

As we work to defeat ISIS and prevent the establishment of a terrorist safe-haven in the heart of the Middle East, we must move globally to get back on offense in the war on terror. This means, first recognizing and admitting the size and scope of the threat we face. Al-Qaeda is not “diminished,” nor is the “tide of war receding.” Wishing doesn’t make it so. Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win.

Winning will require allies. Across the broader Middle East, we have to reassure our friends and allies that America will not abandon them. After five and half years of an administration sending regular messages of retreat, withdrawal, and indifference, we have lost credibility and the trust of allies we need to win this war. We must now demonstrate through increased intelligence cooperation, military assistance, training, joint exercises, and economic support that we know they are on the front lines of the War on Terror. We should do everything possible to defend Jordan against ISIS. We should immediately provide the Apache helicopters and other military support the government of Egypt needs to fight the terrorist insurgency in the Sinai.

We should recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood is the ideological source for all radical Islamic terrorist groups around the globe. We ought to designate it as the terrorist organization it is, and we should provide full backing and support for those governments across the Middle East who are standing against the Muslim Brotherhood.

We should make clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and to other nations in the region as well. We should refuse to accept any deal that allows them to continue to spin centrifuges and enrich uranium. The regime in Tehran must be made to understand that the United States will not allow that to happen, and that we will take military action if necessary to stop it.

To avoid repeating President Obama’s arbitrary and hasty withdrawal of residual forces from Iraq — the tragic error that gave us a caliphate — we should halt the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan. The terror and chaos in Iraq today will only be replayed in Afghanistan if we abandon that country.

I might add that by now, with all that’s happening in Iraq and well beyond, we should hear no more talk about treating the fight against terror as a matter for law enforcement. The idea that terrorists are just criminals of a different stripe has been a dogma of this administration from the beginning. And it’s time we put it to rest once and for all.

All that we achieved in protecting this country after 9/11 came from the understanding that terrorists are not just common lawbreakers, and terrorism is not just street crime on a bigger scale. Despite years of criticizing those policies, President Obama himself has lately been pointing to the Bush-Cheney security apparatus as evidence that he’s keeping America safe. “Since 9/11,” he said at a fundraiser last month, “we have built up a security apparatus that makes us in the here and now pretty safe.” And that’s a direct quote.

Nice to hear, especially from someone who used to speak so disparagingly about the steps we took after 9/11. After years of saying that America had lost its way, abandoned our values in building up that security apparatus, now he’s invoking it to give assurance that we are prepared.

I know something about that apparatus. I was one of its architects. And President Obama seems willfully blind to one of the key facts about the post-9/11 security apparatus: It is not self-sustaining. Those programs and policies must be kept strong and current.

The Obama administration has failed utterly in that task. After five and a half years of dismantling the apparatus we put in place, he cannot honestly claim that same apparatus will keep us safe. And this is the most critical measure we should apply to the president’s remarks today. Any serious strategy has to include a major new commitment to restoring our nation’s military defenses.

We simply cannot pursue a comprehensive strategy against terrorism at the same time we’re giving pink slips to captains and majors in the combat zone. And yet this and more is happening. In this very time of hasty withdrawals, continuous disengagement, and such self-congratulation for all of it, we have also seen dramatic and devastating drawdowns in the military power of the United States. Ours is the power that underlies so much else, yet even this has been taken for granted during these years. We’re nearing a crisis point in the decline of American military power. It has to be addressed, and right away.

The administration should be aware of this by now, because the bipartisan National Defense Panel — appointed by the president’s own defense secretary — recently warned of untenable reductions in force levels. Take almost any element of our defense capability, and it has been reduced in some cases with further reductions to come. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines — all of them have been subjected to irrational budget cuts having nothing to do with strategy or the needs of national security.

Soon, for instance, we’ll actually be looking at an Army and Marine Corps with authorized strength levels beneath what they were prior to 9/11. Of the Army’s 40 brigades, only four are combat ready. Meanwhile, we have seen crucial programs and weapons systems delayed or cancelled, either arbitrarily or else by the flimsiest of rationales. Under this president we are in the midst of a systematic pullback of defense investment in ways that will severely hinder our force structure, projection power, and general ability to meet and deter threats.

It was one of the highest honors of my life to have the opportunity to serve as secretary of defense. There is no finer group of people anywhere than the men and women who wear the uniform of our nation. We need to do everything we can to make sure every expenditure is justified, but the defense budget is different from every other part of our federal budget. In most other areas, you start with questions like “What do we have?” and “What can we afford?” When you are looking at the defense of the United States, you start with the question, “What do we need?”

But that kind of careful thought is not what is driving the massive defense reductions now underway. And whatever the thinking behind these decisions, it bears little relation to a strategic environment that is complex, demanding, and getting more dangerous.

Look around: Other major powers are seriously adding to their military capabilities, some with a view to exploiting what they regard as America’s new vulnerabilities. We’ve got, among other problems, nuclear-armed countries with uncertain futures. There is still a constant threat of WMD proliferation, which can be effectively countered only with American leadership and power. We’ve got all this, and more besides, going on in 2014 — and we’re investing in defense as if the dangers of the world were all in quiet retreat.

Of course, they are not, as the next commander-in-chief will likely appreciate from day one. That next president, unless we start matching our military investment with the threats and challenges we face, will also find that the options have narrowed. All the capacities we need to shape events, protect our interests, and work to peaceful ends may not be there. Even the wisest, boldest calls in the Situation Room will not come to much without the assets to follow through, whether by land, sea, air, space, or cyberspace. And when the next Congress convenes in January, I can think of no more urgent business than this: Leaders in both parties, working together, must ensure that the highest priority in our federal budget is the security of the United States.

With crises in Iraq, Ukraine, and so much else unraveling, there is little comfort in President Obama’s reminders now and then that ultimately, things have a way of working out, and that, ultimately, the bad actors of the world are destined to fail. The terrorists, he’s observed a time or two, are on the wrong side of history — a useful thought, only if it is expressed in the active and not the passive, to motivate and not just to console. The terrorists who threaten this country and our friends are on the wrong side of civilization. They will be on the wrong side of history only if we put them there.

We must deal with threats before they become grave dangers and dangers before they become catastrophes. That’s where the best kind of history is made — the story of awful things that never happened, because our foresight and resolve did not allow them.

President Obama likes to talk about cycles of history. I can tell you — it is the leadership of brave men and women that makes history. In particular, it has been the United States of America, time and again, that has answered threats, taken swift and determined action, kept the peace, and liberated millions.

In all that we now face, the worst, most self-defeating illusion is the idea that American power and leadership are optional — as if, with or without us, the world will somehow get by. Ask around, among friends and allies, and you’ll hear otherwise. They still welcome and desire American influence, in any matter where freedom is on the line or security in the balance. They still believe in American leadership, as a force for good like no other. And they know their security — and ours — depends upon American power and will only be guaranteed with a restoration of American leadership and strength.

Thank you.

— Dick Cheney was vice president during the George W. Bush administration.


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