We don’t know Dick …

Jon Stewart is one of those guys that falls into the trap of excellence. The Daily Show is comedy and satire at such a high level so consistently, that it takes something truly great to grab attention and provoke comment. On the August 15th segment of “You don’t know Dick” he really knocked one out of the park.

We’ve all seen the grainy photo of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand in Baghdad in the 80’s, but any involvement Cheney has had with Iraq over the years has largely been ignored. Last night, Stewart pulled up some old clips of Cheney from 1994 discussing the reasons for not continuing with the invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War, citing very clearly the dangers of fragmentation, the concerns of what would replace Saddam once he fell. The man even used the word “quagmire” to describe the likely scenario resulting from an invasion of Baghdad.

One of the great things about Stewart is that he is relentless on a point. However, in last night’s segment, he could have juxtaposed 2002/2003 statements by Cheney directly against the 1994 statements very well, and I want to do that a bit today. While the 1994 Cheney clearly recognized the complex situation in Iraq, he also recognized the danger of Saddam. The difference in 2002/2003 is that while Cheney recognizes (and probably overstates, but thats another issue), he completely ignores his very valid concerns of quagmire from 1994.

The 1994 Cheney clearly saw how fractured the three main ethnic groups would be after Saddam fell, and therefore how chaotic and dangerous the security situation would be. Yet the 2002/2003 Cheney said “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” When the decision WAS Cheney’s and the elder Bush’s in Gulf War I, they chose to leave Saddam in power, allowing him to still be a “threat” in 2003. Yet, the 2004 version of Cheney criticized John Kerry by saying the following … “Had the decision belonged to Senator Kerry, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today in Iraq. In fact, Saddam Hussein would almost certainly still be in control of Kuwait.” Had Cheney and the elder Bush dealt with the threat when they had the chance, Saddam wouldn’t have been around to bother people in 2002/2003. The only reason Cheney could make that statement in 2004 is that the 1994 version of Cheney clearly felt it was OK to leave Saddam in charge of Baghdad … when the decision was up to Cheney, he too left Saddam in control of Iraq.

The 1994 Cheney expressed grave concerns about the complexity of the situation in Iraq, and how that must be weighed against any possible benefit to be gained from invasion. The post 9/11 Cheney said “The days of looking the other way while despotic regimes trample human rights, rob their nations’ wealth, and then excuse their failings by feeding their people a steady diet of anti-Western hatred are over.” Of course, in 1994 it was Cheney himself advocating that we look the other way while Saddam continued to trample the rights of Iraqis.

After the “You don’t know Dick” segment, Stewart ended the show with an interview the author of “Cheney,” to which he put many of these issues. While Stephen Hayes’ point that 9/11 might change the calculation of danger a regime like Saddam’s posed, Stewart was excellent in reminding Hayes that while it might change that calculation, it didn’t change Cheney’s own assessment from 1994 of the “quagmire” potential. When Stewart asked Hayes why Cheney and the rest of the administration didn’t prepare the American people for the “quagmire” Cheney himself predicted in 1994, Hayes responded that he felt they didn’t understate the difficulty. Yet, the record proves him wrong (and I wish Stewart had time to find and throw some direct quotes back at him). Hayes tried to claim Cheney never suggested the invasion would be quick and easy, but the 2003 version of Cheney had already forgotten the “quagmire” notion when he said “I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months” on March 16, 2003. At roughly the same time, Cheney’s colleagues like Donald Rumsfeld were making similar statements … “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” with no correction from Cheney. If the 1994 version of Cheney could see the quagmire, why did the 2003 Cheney predict “weeks rather than months?”

Overall, it was a classic night for Stewart. One of the things he does best is expose the hypocrisy behind many political statements (I recall a few months ago he ran a similar bit where the 2000 version of Candidate Bush debated the 2004 version of President Bush using video clips of speeches), and last night’s session on Cheney was an excellent one. No one disputes that the world’s security situation has changed as a result of Islamic terrorism, but Stewart was right to point out that Cheney and his colleagues completely ignored the complex situation they were entering in 2002/2003, and in fact scoffed at people who predicted difficult times ahead, using quotes like “weeks rather than months.” If they had merely been honest with the American people in 2002/2003 about the complex and difficult situation in Iraq, the conduct of the war today would be seen in a completely different light. Instead, they told us in 2002/2003 it would be a cakewalk, over in “weeks rather than months” and that we’d be “greeted as liberators” and now try to ignore those predictions.

Whatever else you can say about the invasion of Iraq, the 1994 video of Cheney makes it clear he understood prior to the invasion that Iraq was a complex place full of dangerous rivalries. Its reasonable to ask, as Stewart did of Hayes (and got no real answer), why the 2002 version of Cheney refused to plan for the difficulties that the 1994 Cheney clearly saw. Its a reasonable question to ask, and its reasonable to press for an answer that makes sense. 9/11 and Islamic terrorism may have changed the danger Saddam posed, thereby making an invasion necessary. But as Stewart pointed out, 9/11 did nothing to change the inherent complexity of Iraq, nor the “quagmire” that might result from an invasion, and yet the administration never bothered to plan for the quagmire we see today.

Stewart clearly does a service by highlighting this sort of hypocrisy, but one also wonders why it takes a comedian doing satire to point out the obvious differences between what Cheney said in 1994 and what he did in 2003. Isn’t that the sort of thing that real news should have brought up, back when Cheney was saying it would all be over in “weeks rather than months?” Doesn’t a statement like “weeks rather than months” demand that news media next play the “quagmire” line from 1994 in response? Why is Kerry held responsible for things he said in the 70’s over a different war in a different country, when Cheney gets off scot-free for contradicting himself in less than a decade about exactly the same regime and leader? Its always nice to see Stewart bring this sort of thing up, but it never ceases to make me wonder why and how the MSM drops the ball on things like this. Perhaps the most telling comment from 1994 Cheney was a rhetorical question … “How many dead Americans is Saddam worth? Not very many.” Obviously, 9/11 might change the calculation somewhat, but with some acknowledgment of the quagmire that he himself predicted, Cheney certainly could have minimized the number of dead Americans so far.

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