The case for war vs. the case for peace.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 20 2004 10:38 PM

Cheney's Burden

The case for war vs. the case for peace.

CORNWALL, PA.—Dick Cheney delivers a lecture, not a stump speech. He squats on a stool, buttons his too-tight jacket, and speaks for 10 minutes without drawing applause. During his entire discourse, which lasts nearly half an hour, the audience claps six times. Only once does Cheney pause ostentatiously, as politicians do, to signal to his listeners that a particular utterance merits their enthusiasm. George W. Bush, John Edwards, and John Kerry all say that this election is the most important in history, but only Cheney dares to make you believe it.

Theoretically, Monday's town hall is about manufacturing, small businesses, and the economy. That's what all the introductory speakers talk about. But Cheney doesn't say a word on the subject. He talks terrorism, he talks Afghanistan, and he talks Iraq. After World War II, Cheney says, a bipartisan consensus created the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other institutions, and those structures served the United States well for more than 40 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Now, the nation stands at "another of those moments in history," when policies and institutions will be crafted to deal with the national security issues of the next 30 to 50 years. And that, he says, is what this election is about: not four years but four decades.

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He makes the most compelling case possible for continuing with a flawed policy. Before 9/11, he says, the terrorists learned two lessons from how the United States responded to their multiple strikes: "They could strike the United States with relative impunity," and, "If they hit us hard enough, they could change our policy," as happened after the 1983 attack in Beirut and again in Mogadishu. That's why, Cheney insists, the nation must stay the course in Iraq. The strategy of terrorists is to use violence to force a change in U.S. policy. If that happens, "that's a victory for the terrorists."

Kerry hasn't argued for a complete withdrawal from Iraq, of course, though Cheney certainly implies it. What really differentiates Cheney's position from Kerry's is how the two men approach the burden of proof for war: The Bush administration has shifted it from war to peace.

That's what Cheney is saying, that the administration's current Iraq policies are the proper default position. Any change in policy—not just a complete withdrawal, but any "change"—must be weighed against the fear of emboldening al-Qaida. And at its heart, that's what the debate over going to war with Iraq has been about for two years. Those, like Kerry, who wanted to give the inspectors more time, or who wanted to bring more allies aboard before invading, believed that the burden of proof was on war, that an attacking nation must provide evidence of the justness of its decision. The administration argued the opposite, that Iraq needed to prove to the world that it didn't deserve to be invaded. The job of the inspectors, in this view, wasn't to find weapons of mass destruction but to prove a virtual impossibility, that Iraq didn't possess WMD. That was the lesson of 9/11, the administration said. We couldn't wait to find out whether Iraq had WMD. If we did, it might be too late.

Based on his speech in New York on Monday, Kerry doesn't agree with that lesson. He says he voted for the war to give the president leverage in the United Nations. That way the inspectors could verify whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But Kerry misunderstands the administration's position. They didn't want to prove the case for war. The only way to dissuade them would be if someone had proven the case for peace.

Kerry did agree with one thing Cheney said: This debate isn't just about Iraq. Bush's policies are a "warning," Kerry said. If Bush is re-elected, "he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes."

The question in front of voters in November: Do you think, for the next 30 to 50 years, that the nation needs to prove its case when it goes to war? Or do you think the world has changed so much that we should have to prove the case for peace?

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.