Fetters needed

June 21, 2007

It's not easy to find out what Vice President Dick Cheney is up to, but somehow as information dribbles out he always seems to have been at the heart of every egregious move undertaken by the Bush administration.

Mr. Cheney sponsored the lawyers who came up with the idea that torture was a beneficial addition to American jurisprudence, he has dismissed a suggestion by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to resolve the Guantanamo Bay outrage, and he blocked the promotion of a Justice Department lawyer who resisted the warrantless wiretapping program.

Mr. Cheney believes in a muscular leader - the so-called unitary executive - but the problem with that is that unfettered executives not only do things that are unseemly or wrong, they also, because they are unchecked, do things that don't work.

Right now, Mr. Cheney's allies in the government are pressing U.S. intelligence agencies to provide information on Iranian weapons in Afghanistan, according to a recent report in Newsweek. Clearly, they could be a problem. But just as clearly, the vice president's aides are less concerned with Afghanistan itself and more concerned with building a case against Iran (and doing an end-run around Ms. Rice, who has been pushing a diplomatic offensive - and perhaps around President Bush, too). Let's put this another way: They're looking to cherry-pick tidbits of intelligence, and amplify their significance, to justify a war. Sound familiar?

Any American official who cared about Afghanistan would focus on the Pakistanis, who are the natural allies of the Taliban (unlike Iran) and have actively fostered the Taliban's resurgence. But the U.S. turns a blind eye to that, because - at Mr. Cheney's insistence - the U.S. stands foursquare with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and will not engage in any discussion about his many shortcomings. Mr. Cheney has the largest staff by far of any vice president, yet even as he maneuvers the administration's policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has no aides with any substantive experience in those countries.

This is crafty, perhaps, but also reckless in the extreme.

There is a strain of thought in neoconservative circles that holds that President Bush will have to bomb Iranian nuclear sites before his term is up because no successor would have the nerve to do so. An ideal outcome, in this view, would be regime change in Tehran. And proponents of this move believe Mr. Cheney is their champion within the government.

To do this would be to double-down on a bad bet - the bad bet having been the war in Iraq. It is the kind of thing that people who don't face checks and balances might dream up, but in the real world, it would be an extraordinarily inflammatory move, and one that would ultimately be self-defeating.

Mr. Cheney came to office as one of the CEOs in Mr. Bush's vaunted CEO administration. (Donald H. Rumsfeld was another.) Like the worst of contemporary CEOs, he has insulated himself from those who would point out the errors of his thinking. As a result, he's running the outfit into the ground.

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