Republican National Chairman Michael Steele says "the era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over." But that must have been a very brief “era,” since it’s hard to remember any significant mistakes that the GOP has owned up to – except perhaps that George W. Bush wasn’t right-wing enough.
Instead, leading Republicans – and right-wing pundits – have engaged in a steady campaign of defending almost every controversial action of the Bush years, including torture of detainees, a war of aggression in Iraq, disregard of constitutional rights, failure to address global warming, massive tax cuts for the rich, the absence of financial regulation, etc., etc.
Nor has the Republican Party apologized for its ugly chip-on-the-shoulder tone and divisive tactics. It continues to exploit “wedge issues” designed to split the nation, now focusing on “gay marriage” as the party earlier relied on the “Southern strategy” to attract white voters upset about civil rights for blacks.
The GOP also won’t stop its extreme rhetoric. Its national committee even contemplated demanding that the Democratic Party change its name to the “Democrat Socialist Party” – though the idea was ultimately rejected.
In recent weeks, a GOP governor in Texas mused about secession and pro-Republican hosts at Fox News bantered about armed insurrection. One such host, Glenn Beck, has accused the Obama administration of engaging in “progressive fascism” because of its efforts to restructure and save the U.S. auto industry.
The only noticeable “apologizing” on the Republican side has been about Bush violating conservative precepts against government spending and federal debt, although the GOP enthusiastically supports higher military spending and rejects any tax increase that might reduce the ballooning deficit.
Instead of an “era of apologizing,” most Americans have witnessed continuation of the long era of the unapologetic Republican, now epitomized by former Vice President Dick Cheney who is on a speaking tour defending every excess of Bush’s “war on terror."
In Cheney’s May 21 speech to the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, he also deployed the same sneering tone – common to the modern Republican – in demeaning critics, including President Barack Obama, along the lines of the old right-wing caricature of liberals as “blame-America-firsters.”
Cheney derided the common-sense claim made by Obama and many other Americans (including senior military commanders) that the images of the Guantanamo Bay prison and the mistreatment of “war on terror” suspects have helped al-Qaeda and other extremist groups recruit more terrorists:
“This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the President himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrain from the Left. We brought it on ourselves.”
Cheney’s intolerant tone, of course, is nothing new to Americans who lived through the eight years of the Bush administration – or for that matter who have listened to Republican rhetoric dating back at least to Richard Nixon, whose Vice President Spiro Agnew dismissed Vietnam War critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism” while Nixon called anti-war students “bums.”
The Watergate political spying scandal – and the resignations of Agnew and Nixon – offered the Republicans a chance to change course. They could have repudiated Nixon’s imperial theories and his belligerent style. They could have committed themselves to traditional American constitutional principles and begun treating adversaries with respect.
However, by the late 1970s, with the enlistment of the clever neoconservatives and the launching of a right-wing media infrastructure to wage a “war of ideas,” the Republicans opted for a different lesson from the Watergate scandal: make sure you have the capability to cover up.
For the last three decades, the Republicans, the neocons and their right-wing media allies have run roughshod over the American political system.
They did virtually whatever they wanted, ignoring laws (e.g. the Iran-Contra scandal); flooding the public with propaganda (what they called “perception management”); running dirty political campaigns (see Lee Atwater, 1988); engaging in sleazy scandal-mongering (hounding Bill Clinton in the 1990s); getting away with election theft (Bush v. Gore, 2000); spreading fear (post-9/11 rhetoric); restoring the Imperial Presidency (George W. Bush’s secret legal theories); plotting for a one-party state (Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority”); and more.
Dick Cheney, whose career spanned nearly the entirety of this modern GOP, is now mounting a vigorous defense of these Republican tendencies, essentially advocating the replacement of a constitutional Republic (founded on the principles of individual liberties and the rule of law) with a national security state based on fear, smears and a selective rendering of history.
His May 21 speech, which directly followed an address on terrorism by President Obama, was a classic in the genre of presenting your opponents as cowardly buffoons and ignoring all evidence of your own mistakes.
For instance, when Cheney’s referred to al-Qaeda and A.Q. Khan, the Pakistan nuclear physicist credited with building the “Islamic bomb,” Cheney might have noted that he was part of the Republican leadership in the 1980s that turned a blind eye to Khan’s nuclear work in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation in shipping U.S. weapons to Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, including a young Osama bin Laden.
Cheney might have cited how his own excessive concern about what was then a rapidly deteriorating Soviet Union helped create the danger of al-Qaeda terrorism, which is made dramatically worse by the existence of a nuclear arsenal in Pakistan.
In referring to Saddam Hussein, Cheney could have noted how Republican icon Ronald Reagan funneled covert support to the Iraqi strongman – including precursor materials for chemical and biological warfare – in another misguided American intrusion into Middle Eastern affairs.
Or when Cheney talked about people “with known ties to Mideast terrorists,” he might have noted how the Reagan administration conspired with terrorist elements in Lebanon and shipped missiles to Iran – then deemed a terrorist state – or how U.S. governments have long supported right-wing terrorists operating across Latin America. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
Cheney also might have acknowledged how George W. Bush and his top aides pooh-poohed warnings from the Clinton administration and from the CIA about the threat from al-Qaeda in the months leading up to 9/11.
When Cheney bashed the New York Times for exposing the warrantless wiretap program in December 2005, he again demonstrated how imbalanced and unfair his complaints could be. He accused the Times of “publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaeda,” and added:
“It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country or the safety of our people.”
Though it’s still a cheap applause line on the Right to kick the New York Times, Cheney was unfair to suggest that the warrantless wiretap story was illegitimate. By any standards, it raised important legal and constitutional questions -- even within Bush's own Justice Department.
Plus, the Bush administration never presented a plausible explanation for why the Times’ sketchy account of the program was harmful to national security, since al-Qaeda operatives were surely aware that their communications were the target of U.S. intelligence.
Besides that, Cheney didn’t mention how much assistance the New York Times had given to the Bush administration for its war policies.
In 2002, Cheney favorably cited the Times' bogus story about Iraq importing aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges, a tale that helped sell the case for the invasion. Nor did Cheney note how the Times had suppressed the wiretap story for more than a year at the administration’s behest.
Even on the morning of Cheney’s speech, the Times was hyping a dubious report from the Bush administration’s Defense Department about how one in seven released Guantanamo prisoners supposedly “returned” to terrorist activities. Cheney approvingly cited the leak but not the newspaper that published it. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Helps the Bushies, Again.”]
But Cheney, the neocons and their right-wing cohorts have never been about making a full and fair presentation of the facts to the American people. They have been about manipulating the American people with selective information mixed with combinations of fear and tough talk.
For Cheney and similar authoritarians, American principles of justice are not something to have pride in, but rather silly inconveniences that only effete and foolish liberals would care about. For instance, in his speech, Cheney made this comment about the alleged 9/11 mastermind:
“Maybe you've heard that when we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he said he would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer. But like many critics of interrogations, he clearly misunderstood the business at hand.”
Instead of being afforded basic legal rights or even humane treatment, “KSM” was subjected to forced nudity, long periods of sleep deprivation, painful stress positions and the near-drowning of waterboarding at least 183 times. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross and every other objective observer, he was tortured.
However, in Cheney’s world – where information is selective, principles are a la carte, and words are malleable – the treatment of KSM and other “high-value detainees” wasn’t “torture.”
“Torture was never permitted,” Cheney said. “And the methods were given careful legal review before they were approved. Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between toughness and torture, and they knew to stay on the right side of it.”
Cheney went on to accuse the administration’s critics of “feigned outrage based on a false narrative” about torture, adding:
“Intelligence officers of the United States were not trying to rough up some terrorists simply to avenge the dead of 9/11. ... But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.”
In other words, Cheney is advocating an anything-goes mentality that appeals to some fearful Americans who put their personal safety ahead of everything else, but Cheney’s viewpoint understandably alarms many others who believe that terrorism can be combated without throwing away more than two centuries of U.S. legal traditions.
Those Americans include many traditional conservatives, like former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein, who said recently: “Part of being a Republic is to accept some risk. ... When we try to eliminate all risk then we end up losing the Republic.”
Yet, instead of taking pride in the fact that even a brutal enemy like KSM expected legal and humane treatment from his American captors, Cheney spit out the words about KSM wanting a lawyer like a punch line from one of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies.
Cheney’s word games, elastic principles and extremism also don’t stand alone.
Those attitudes have become central to the modern Republican Party, where you can find dozens of leaders over the past few decades who have demonstrated a similar contempt for the underpinnings of a democratic Republic, one that is founded on the rule of law and respect for human rights.
There is a lot for the GOP to apologize for – and contrary to Michael Steele’s comment, the era of Republican apologizing is not over. Indeed it has not begun.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 24, 2009.