Dick Cheney's Faux Arguments

Though I dislike Dick Cheney, I am inclined to listen carefully whenever he expresses an opinion about the War on Terrorism. The Iraq debacle is proof that his strategic instincts can lead the country astray. Even so, he is a man of long experience in government, and his advice is informed by tomes of classified information we’ve never seen. Here is an informed man who wants, insofar as I can tell, what is best for his country. That is enough to earn his arguments an airing.

But what pathetic arguments he offers. I needn’t worry that I should defer to him on some matter where he is possessed of more information when my critique is that his assertions are inconsistent with themselves, or else utterly misunderstand or elide the crux of the matter at hand.

Here is Dick Cheney talking to Bob Schieffer:

SCHIEFFER: What do you say to those, Mr. Vice President, who say that when we employ these kinds of tactics, which are after all the tactics that the other side uses, that when we adopt their methods, that we’re weakening security, not enhancing security, because it sort of makes a mockery of what we tell the rest of the world?

CHENEY: Well, then you’d have to say that, in effect, we’re prepared to sacrifice American lives rather than run an intelligent interrogation program that would provide us the information we need to protect America.

Do you see what is going on here? Schieffer is raising the same point that Jim Manzi made: it’s conceivable that torture is an effective tactic but a counterproductive strategy—one that makes us less safe in the long run, in effect sacrificing American lives for information obtained at the cost of long term safety. Does Cheney have no answer? Or is he unable to conceive of the premise behind the question? Either way, he isn’t a very effective spokesman for the position he is ostensibly defending.

The interview continues:

The fact of the matter is, these techniques that we’re talking about are used on our own people. We — in a program that in effect trains our people with respect to capture and evasion and so forth and escape, a lot of them go through these same exact procedures. Now…

SCHIEFFER: Do you — is what you’re saying here is that we should do anything if we could get information?

CHENEY: No. Remember what happened here, Bob. We had captured these people. We had pursued interrogation in a normal way. We decided that we needed some enhanced techniques. So we went to the Justice Department. And the controversy has arisen over the opinions written by the Justice Department.

The reason we went to the Justice Department wasn’t because we felt we were going to take some kind of free hand assault on these people or that we were in the torture business. We weren’t. And specifically, what we got from the Office of Legal Counsel were legal memos that laid out what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate, in light of our international commitments.

This is confusing. One minute, Cheney is arguing that it is wrongheaded to abandon a tactic that works, never mind strategy, because it’s important to do whatever it takes to get the information needed to save American lives. So Schieffer asks, “what you’re saying here is that we should do anything”? And Cheney won’t defend that proposition. He implies that no, we should only interrogate in ways that are in accordance with American law and international treaties we’ve signed. Except he clearly doesn’t believe that — actions speak louder than words!

Even focusing narrowly on the words above, Dick Cheney is unable to defend any coherent position. It is difficult to refute him, as he isn’t saying much of substance directly — much of his arguments are implied. But I can say this: certain assertions he is definitely making are factually wrong — the Bush Administration violated domestic law and the Geneva Conventions, the OLC be damned — and the arguments he implies are inconsistent with one another.

If this is the best case that can be made for the Bush era interrogation practices, they’re even less defensible than I imagined.