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Why Is Dick Cheney Helping Obama?

4 years ago
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Why is Dick Cheney helping Barack Obama? I know they're cousins -- eighth cousins, to be precise -- but for a guy who seems to detest the president and everything he stands for concerning national security, Cheney is inexplicably providing political aid and comfort to Obama.

On Wednesday night, Cheney received the not-so-coveted Keeper of the Flame award from the Center for Security Policy, a rather hawkish group run by Frank Gaffney, who was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the Iraq war. Accepting the honor, Cheney delivered a 25-minute speech and once again accused Obama of committing strategic blunders and undermining the credibility of the United States. Most notably, Cheney slammed the president for "dithering" on Afghanistan, saying that Obama "seems afraid to make a decision, and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete his mission."

Coming from Cheney, this was ridiculous. It is no news flash that the Bush-Cheney White House neglected the Afghanistan effort for years. In fact, as I wrote in 2006, the Bush administration didn't even have a senior-level official solely responsible for policies and actions in Afghanistan. The mid-level White House aide handling Afghanistan at the time had another portfolio: the Iraq war.

In his speech, Cheney insisted that his White House had not dropped the ball: "In the fall of 2008, fully aware of the need to meet new challenges being posed by the Taliban, we dug into every aspect of Afghanistan policy, assembling a team that repeatedly went into the country, reviewing options and recommendations." Talk about dithering. That review occurred seven years after the war began. (U.S. involvement in World War II lasted only four years.)

For Democrats, countering Cheney's charges was far easier than figuring out what to do in Afghanistan. Responding to Cheney's remarks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said:

I think it's a curious comment, given -- I think it's pretty safe to say that the vice president was for seven years not focused on Afghanistan. . . . What Vice President Cheney calls "dithering," President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public. I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously.

Even Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander rejected Cheney's criticism and commented, "I want [Obama] to take the time to get it right." By the way, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in the Bush-Cheney administration, recently said on CNN, "I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s." In other words, Bush and Cheney had nada. And in 2007, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the Bush-Cheney gang was not treating Afghanistan as a priority: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."

Cheney lecturing Obama on Afghanistan is laughable, but the joke is on him. The ex-veep may not realize this, but he and his former boss exited office as profoundly unpopular men. Many in this country couldn't wait to see them leave. Obama won the presidency partly because he was the anti-Bush (or anti-Cheney). An impressive person on his own, Obama especially looked good compared to the fellows on the way out.

Now that Obama is a president rather than a candidate, he has lost the advantage of comparison. A commander in chief stands on his own before the public for judgment. His policies are evaluated by voters on absolute terms: Are they working? People no longer ask: Are they better than the other guy's? With the war in Afghanistan a serious problem and unemployment a kiss away from the 10 percent mark, every day Obama has to prove himself to Americans. And even his best efforts and decisions might not lead to good outcomes on these fronts. There actually may not be solutions to implement. Obama could well end up in deep political trouble because of such challenges.

But by interjecting himself into the discourse, Cheney sends up a flare: Hey, don't forget about me and Bush! And that reminder is great for the White House. If the issue is, can Obama succeed in Afghanistan, there's reason for Obama and his aides to worry. If the debate is Obama versus the Old Gang, the president is the big winner. In the 2008 campaign, he ran against Bush more than John McCain, and that worked out nicely for him. Since taking office, Obama has justifiably noted over and over that he's been cleaning up the mess left behind by Bush and Cheney. That argument will lose its oomph, the smaller Bush and Cheney become in the rear-view mirror. But here comes Cheney, jumping on the hood, pressing his face against the windshield, and proclaiming, "I'm here." What could be better for Obama?

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, told me this week that he worries that by next year Obama will have a tough time blaming the nation's economic woes on Bush's policies. But if unemployment remains high, Obama and other Democrats will have no choice but to continue to make this case. Yet the more Cheney is in the spotlight, the easier it will be for Democrats and the White House to point an accusing finger at the previous administration. Cheney would help his fellow Republicans the most by sticking to fishing (please, no hunting) and letting Obama and Democrats contend with the vexing problems he and Bush bequeathed them -- and possibly fail.

Cheney and Obama are obviously not competing for the same audience. By slamming Obama, Cheney may be hoping to boost his own standing among conservatives, even if these moves also help Obama. But since Cheney is not running for any office in the future, such a tactic would be particularly selfish. After all, the Cheney brand is a damaged one. He's not a product the Republican Party wants on the shelf.

So as White House aides figure out how to manage their feud with Fox News, they should have no mixed feelings about mixing it up with Cheney. Politicians are often defined by their enemies. And there's no better enemy for Obama and his crew than Dick Cheney. They ought to send him a thank-you card.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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