Vice-President who is second-to-none

By Rupert Cornwell

So now we know - sort of. Six years after the event, the Washington Post published this week a partial list of those consulted by the task force headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney, set up by President George W. Bush soon after he took office in January 2001, to map a new energy strategy for the United States.

In a way, it's no big deal. The list, which the administration has fought tooth and nail to keep secret, reveals the task force relied preponderantly upon experts from, and lobbyists for, the big oil, gas and utility companies. Given the industry backgrounds of the President and the Vice-President, and the massive campaign contributions received from the energy companies, this was precisely as suspected.

But the symbolic importance of the affair was, and remains, enormous. It offered a first taste for the obsessive secrecy of the incoming administration, underlining how the old adage about government in the Soviet Union - that you knew nothing but understood everything - applied almost as much to this White House.

The untried and incurious President would reign. But his government would be shaped largely by his vastly experienced Vice-President, contemptuous of Congress and so skilled in bureaucracy that his authority would reach across every branch of the administration.

It would not be so bad if the decisions that emerged had been wise and farsighted. But this White House, headed by the first president in history with an MBA, and a vice-president who was the chairman of a giant oil services group before he was picked as running mate in summer 2000, demonstrated anything but the efficiency of the boardroom. Its obsessive secrecy has bred not wisdom and foresight, but monumental incompetence - for which, at least until the Democrats recaptured Congress last November, no one was accountable.

In almost every case, the hand of Cheney has been evident: from the ill-planned war in Iraq to the shame of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, from the demeaning refusal to renounce torture to the scandal of illegal warrantless wiretapping - all quietly championed by a vice-president utterly beyond public scrutiny. Bush, after all, is obliged to hold conferences, make public speeches and deliver the odd primetime address to make his case. Cheney faces no such requirement.

But for him, a low-profile is insufficient. His goal is absolute invisibility; hence his order that even the standard secret service logs of visitors to his office should be destroyed. Hence, too, the extraordinary dispute that arose when an obscure government oversight agency requested Cheney's staff to co-operate in classifying its official documents, as every other part of the federal government does routinely.

At first the Vice-President's men refused. Then, when the agency persisted they tried to have it abolished. When that gambit failed, his advisers tried to claim that because the Vice-President was, under the constitution, also president of the Senate, Cheney was actually part of Congress and the legislative branch, and thus exempt from the regulations.

Only when the House of Representatives threatened to take the Vice-President at his word, and cut off $5m of funding for his job as an executive branch official, did he yield, and consent for his office's papers to be classified as everyone else's.

Astonishingly, though, our man not only survives but flourishes. His approval ratings - barely 20 per cent in some polls - may be even lower than those of his nominal boss.

The replacement of Rumsfeld by the cautious Bob Gates, the supposed reincarnation of Rice - now Secretary of State - as a sensible realist in the Colin Powell mould, suggested Cheney might soon lose his grip on policy.

Such reports may be premature. The Bush team still has 18 months to fashion another foreign policy disaster, this time over Iran. All along Cheney has pushed harder for military action - how, mutter his acolytes, can we possibly leave the next president facing a nuclear regime in Tehran?

And now leaks that point to war are multiplying. Iran, we are told, is in league with al Qaeda and arming insurgents in Iraq.

Not long ago, Bush seemed to have accepted America was in no shape for another military adventure. But who can be sure that however wretched Dick Cheney's track record, he will not prevail again?

- Independent

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