In an interview this week, talk show host Hugh Hewitt asked former Vice President Dick Cheney whether President Obama was being naive in his approach toward Iran. Cheney chose a different explanation:
“I vacillate between the various theories I’ve heard, but you know, if you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.”
In more rational times, in fact in almost any other time in American history, the suggestion that a U.S. president is willfully attempting to undermine the country from within -- that he in fact is committing treason -- would disqualify the speaker from further serious discourse. Even at the deepest depths of the Iraq War, for example, top Democratic leaders certainly questioned Cheney's judgment and wisdom, but they did not publicly question his patriotism. They left conspiratorial muttering about Halliburton stock, etc., to the chatrooms, blogs, email chains and occasional backbenchers, where it belonged.
It is also hard to imagine previous generations of Republican leaders publicly suggesting such a thing about a sitting American president. Those times are gone, however, and Cheney is hardly an isolated example of that fact. To the contrary, the former vice president is expressing and validating a strong undercurrent in modern GOP politics that attempts to delegitemize its opponents and thus warp the entire democratic process. Rudy Giuliani also tapped into it the other day, confessing that "I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
Typically, the same people who peddle such nonsense will then turn around and accuse Obama of being a divisive president, as if Obama is responsible for the paranoia that is running through their synapses. The reality is that such theories were widespread within the Republican base long before Obama even served a day in the White House, and you can see it flower in the birther nonsense, the whitey tape, etc.
It would be nice to be able to brush such craziness aside as inconsequential, but it is not. For democracy to work, it requires a deep and mutual understanding among all parties that while we differ on the details, we're at least all acting in good faith. The other side may be misinformed, dumb, incompetent or any number of things, but we at least have to allow that they are patriotic in their mistakes. And while that good-faith understanding will get bruised from time to time in the rugby scrum that is self-governance, it remains essential. In countries such as Iraq, where democracy has proved unable to take root, it's usually because that minimal belief in the good faith of your opponents is absent.
On the other hand, if you've convinced yourself that a president or party is out to harm America, that its mistakes are not honest mistakes but something more nefarious, then you not only have an excuse to oppose everything that president or party does, you have an obligation to do so. It becomes your patriotic duty. It becomes the prism through which you see everything, and through that prism even the perfectly innocent becomes evidence of treason.
For example, at another point during his interview, Hewitt played a soundbite in which Obama noted that "it’s important to recognize that Iran’s a complicated country, just like we’re a complicated country." Hewitt then turned to Liz Cheney, Dick's daughter and co-author of the new book they're peddling.
Hewitt: "Liz Cheney, is Iran a complicated country just like we’re a complicated country?"
Liz Cheney: "Boy, Hugh, I cannot even imagine an American president saying any sentence that has Iran in it and says they’re just like us. I mean, it’s outrageous."
Again, it's just plain nuts. What kind of mind immediately twists Obama's vanilla statement that "Iran is a complicated country, just like we're a complicated country" into some sort of attack upon the United States? The fact it occurs instantaneously within the mind of Liz Cheney tells you how instinctive it has become for too many.
One final point: Asked in the Hewitt interview about Iran and the pending nuclear deal, our former vice president offered a stark assessment.
"This is a totally radical regime that is the premiere sponsor of state terrorism in the world, and Obama’s about to give them nuclear weapons. It’s -- I can’t think of a more terrible burden to leave the next president than what Obama is creating here."
For the record, during the administration in which Cheney served and played a prominent role in guiding foreign policy, Iran's nuclear program went from rudimentary and primitive to highly sophisticated. By 2008-2009, it was churning out substantial quantities of the highly enriched uranium needed to build a bomb and carrying out important research into the design of such a bomb. The Bush administration failed to even slow that program, and in fact it acted as if it was utterly helpless to do so. By any measure, the Obama administration has already been far more successful.
And thanks to the invasion of Iraq that Cheney championed, an invasion that removed an important Sunni counterweight to Iran and in some ways turned that nation into a Shiite satellite of Tehran, Iran's strategic influence throughout the Middle East was much stronger by the time Cheney and President Bush left office than when they first took the oath.
That was the world as they handed it to their successor, a world molded by their own incompetence, bad judgment, wishful thinking and the very same intellectual arrogance that still emanates from Cheney like radiation from a dark star that has collapsed in upon itself.
But wrong as he has proved himself to be, and for all the damage that he has done, I still accept that somehow, in some strange way, he has the nation's best interest at heart.