Former Vice President Dick Cheney recently grilled current Vice President Mike Pence about the Trump administration’s foreign policy failures, according to major news outlets citing people who attended the session and, in the case of The Washington Post, a transcript of it.
We’re a bit over two years into President Donald Trump’s term. Let’s consider where we were, by this point, in the George W. Bush administration. Let’s call it the Bush-Cheney administration, because Cheney was one of the main architects of our foreign and defense policy in this period, and he is widely viewed as the most powerful vice president in American history.
In the 9/11 attack, nearly 3,000 people were killed. The Bush-Cheney administration failed to prevent this tragedy, though some analysts believe they missed clear warnings. For example, the Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence briefing circulated to Bush and his top aides was titled: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” It included specific warnings that Osama Bin Laden’s supporters planned to attack America internally with explosives and wanted to hijack airplanes.
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If we had stepped up security starting in August 2001, 9/11 might never have happened. We could have expanded the Sky Marshal program on an emergency basis to ensure we had armed personnel on all flights.
Terrorism expert Peter Bergen has speculated the attack happened partially because bin Laden believed America wouldn’t retaliate so forcibly. Assuming this is true, if we had communicated to Afghanistan that any attack on America would be catastrophic for Afghanistan and the Taliban (perhaps while positioning forces in the region to make clear this wasn’t a bluff), the attack might have been deterred. We could have done a lot of things.
Maybe nothing would have prevented 9/11. In any event, nothing is basically what Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did.
Cheney and Rumsfeld clearly failed
After 9/11, one clear conclusion Bush should have reached is that his top two national defense experts (Cheney and Rumsfeld) completely failed at their jobs. Bush could have and should have brought in new people.
Instead, Bush put the same people who failed to react to warning signs about 9/11 in charge of our invasion of Afghanistan. We invaded without a coherent plan for what we were going to do, and we’re still there (18 years later) trying to clean up the mess they created. To put that in perspective, less than four years after Pearl Harbor, the United States had liberated Europe and Asia.
A major reason for invading Afghanistan was to capture bin Laden. But the dynamic duo of incompetence, Cheney and Rumsfeld, failed to do that as well.
Boldly recognizing that the two senior Republicans deserved a fourth chance to screw things up, Bush put his crack Cheney-Rumsfeld team in charge of planning and executing our disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. It started on March 20, 2003, and went about as well as everything else they did on behalf of the Bush administration.
This didn’t happen because Team Bush was getting bad advice or intelligence. The State Department warned that the Iraq War could result in a “perfect storm.” The Bush-Cheney administration also ignored assessments from the U.S. intelligence community about invading Iraq.
As David Margolick wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007, the White House “humiliated and marginalized” respected senior officers such as four-star Gen. and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who had “publicly disputed Rumsfeld’s lowball estimates of the troops required for any Iraq War.”
Cheney learned nothing from mistakes
I teach public sector leadership, and I emphasize to my students that mistakes are a fact of life. Good leaders learn from mistakes. If Cheney were acting as elder statesman and gently admonishing the Trump administration to not make the same mistakes he made, this would be useful and admirable. However, Cheney isn’t admitting any major mistakes, and he appears completely oblivious to the damage he has done to America.
Cheney remarked, as an insult, that Trump’s foreign policy seemed similar to President Barack Obama’s. I can see Cheney’s point — clearly Trump isn’t Cheney’s sort of Republican. Under Trump as under Obama, the homeland hasn’t been attacked, and we haven’t started multiple endless wars.
This isn’t intended as an endorsement of Trump’s foreign policy. We face real challenges in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. Hopefully I am wrong, but in my opinion the Trump-Pence administration could be an even bigger disaster for America than the Bush-Cheney administration.
Cheney has, however, accomplished one amazing thing — he has made me actually sympathize with the Trump administration. It doesn’t need, or deserve, Cheney’s sanctimonious advice.
Part of the reason Trump managed to take over the GOP was the incompetence and failures of the Bush-Cheney era. It’s long past time for honest soul-searching, accountability and self-criticism within the GOP establishment.
Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, is an economic development specialist and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Strauss