What Dick Cheney Has Learned From History
The former vice president has proposed an alternative to Obama’s Iran deal. It sounds an awful lot like war.
Something revealing happened over the weekend on Fox News Sunday. Dick Cheney had stopped by to bash President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and promote his new book (co-authored with his daughter Liz). But moderator Chris Wallace, to his credit, wanted to ask Cheney about his own failings on Iran. On the Bush administration’s watch, Wallace noted, Iran’s centrifuges for enriching uranium “went from zero to 5,000.” Cheney protested, declaring that, “That happened on Obama’s watch and not on our watch.” But Wallace held his ground. “No, no, no,” he insisted. “By 2009, they were at 5,000.” Cheney paused for an instant, muttered, “right,” and went back to his talking points.
The exchange illustrated why the former vice president is such an effective purveyor of untruths. Even when caught in a falsehood, he displays no discomfort. Unlike Rick Perry, he never ever says “oops.”
Cheney has needed that sangfroid in recent days, because his falsehoods keep piling up. On Fox, he said that in the nuclear negotiations, the Iranians “got everything they asked for.” Really? In a June 24 tweet, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, declared “we do not accept 10, 12 years long-term restrictions.” But under the deal signed a few weeks later, the Iranians accepted restrictions on their uranium enrichment and their plutonium reprocessing that last 15 years. They accepted international inspections of their uranium mines and mills for 25 years. And they agreed to implement the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gives inspectors the right to see undeclared nuclear sites in perpetuity. Khamenei also demanded “immediate removal of economic, financial and banking sanctions,” adding that, “We do not agree with IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] verification as precondition for the other side to implement its commitments.” But under the agreement, U.S. and European economic, financial, and banking sanctions imposed against Iran’s nuclear program are not immediately removed. They will remain until, you guessed it, “IAEA verification” that Iran has curbed its nuclear program.
On Fox, Cheney also said Obama had paid “cash to the Iranians just to get them to come to the table.” That’s false too. It’s true that in the interim nuclear framework signed in November 2013, the United States and its allies agreed to release $700 million per month in frozen Iranian funds. But what they got in exchange wasn’t merely Iran’s agreement to “come to the table.” They got Iran to pledge not to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent (a bomb requires 90 percent), not to install any new centrifuges, and to allow daily IAEA access to the key nuclear sites of Natanz and Fordow. Cheney claimed the Obama administration gave away something for nothing. In fact, what the U.S. got in return for releasing some frozen funds was a halt to Iran’s nuclear program so effective that even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for extending the interim deal.
There’s more. In a speech on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney claimed that the “Obama Iran agreement lifts sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC-Quds Force, and the Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani.” That’s misleading too. Yes, under the agreement, UN sanctions on Soleimani will expire in eight years. But not American sanctions. The U.S. sanctioned Soleimani and the Quds Force in 2007 for both nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And it sanctioned Soleimani again in 2011 for his alleged role in the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in the U.S. Those sanctions remain, as do all U.S. sanctions against Iran for terrorism and human rights.
Finally, at AEI, Cheney said “President Obama went on Israeli TV and effectively ruled out the option of force” against Iran. Actually, Obama has said military force remains an option to stop Tehran’s nuclear program again and again and again and again. As recently as August 21, Obama wrote in a letter to Congressman Jerry Nadler that “Should Iran seek to dash toward a nuclear weapon, all of the options available to the United States—including the military option—will remain available through the life of the deal and beyond.”
Cheney’s reference was to an interview with Israeli TV in which Obama said, “A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.” But in that interview, Obama wasn’t ruling out military force. He was merely acknowledging what even advocates of military force admit: that the Iranians can rebuild their program after a strike. Claiming that Obama “effectively ruled out the option of military force” is not only dishonest. It’s also ironic—because Cheney was vice president for eight years in an administration that watched the Iranian nuclear program progress and never took military action against Iran.
One gets the feeling, however, that Cheney regrets that. Near the end of his AEI speech, the former vice president turned to his proposed alternative to Obama’s accord with Iran. Most critics of the nuclear deal argue that the United States can reject the current agreement, stiffen sanctions, force its allies to maintain theirs, and thus force the Iranians into a better deal. Cheney, however, said nothing about toughening sanctions. His substitute plan for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons consisted of only one thing: military force.
“[T]here are lessons from the past on which we can draw,” Cheney declared. He then cited Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor; the Gulf War, in which the U.S. destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program; the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Cheney said convinced Libya to abandon its nuclear program; and Israel’s 2007 attack on a nuclear reactor in Syria. “In each of these cases,” Cheney argued, “it was either military action or the credible threat of military action that persuaded these rogue regimes to abandon their weapons programs. Iran will not be convinced to abandon its program peacefully unless it knows it will face military action if it refuses to do so.”
Only Dick Cheney could interpret the last decade or two of U.S. foreign policy as a testament to the efficacy and morality of war.
The closer you look, the more revealing Cheney’s litany is. Obama has been vilified for suggesting that opponents of the nuclear deal are putting the United States on the road to war. But at the end of his AEI speech, Cheney all but proposes war. Sure, he says America just needs the “credible threat of military action.” But he offers no suggestions for how Obama could make that threat credible without actually going to war. Nor does he explain why his own administration’s military threats against Iran weren’t credible during its eight years in office.
In fact, Cheney doesn’t cite historical examples of America or Israel threatening military action. He cites historical examples of America or Israel taking military action. Even Muammar al-Qaddafi, the one leader Cheney cites as having abandoned his nuclear program without being attacked, didn’t give up his program because the U.S. threatened war against Libya. Qaddafi gave it up, according to Cheney himself, because the United States waged war against Iraq. Cheney says he’s drawing on the lessons of history for his alternative to the Iran nuclear deal. But the only lesson he’s drawing is that war works.
For all his dishonesty about the details of the agreement with Iran, there is an underlying honesty to Cheney’s broader perspective. Recognizing that Americans have no appetite for another Middle Eastern war, most deal opponents have spent the summer insisting that they really, really believe in diplomacy with Iran, just not Obama’s kind. Cheney doesn’t bother. The end of his AEI speech is a paean to the effectiveness of military force as a means of stopping nuclear proliferation. Only Dick Cheney could interpret the last decade or two of U.S. foreign policy as a testament to the efficacy and morality of war. But the former vice president has his own relationship with reality. When dissonant information intrudes, he simply mutters “right,” and keeps on going.