In spring 2005, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were beginning their second term in office.  They were expending some “political capital,” as Bush put it, advancing their Social Security reform plan.

Cheney came to the Orange County Register to meet with the editorial board, of which I was a member.  For several days before, the Secret Service scoured our building with dogs and electronic devices.  We gave them our Social Security numbers for background checks.  On the Big Day, the fifth floor, where our editorial board met, was completely evacuated for several hours, to be scoured one last time.  Only those attending the meeting were allowed back onto the floor, after going through an airport-style metal detector.

This was a sharp contrast to our meeting with Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992.  The Secret Service came a couple of days earlier, took our Social Security numbers, and looked around.  But there were no dogs.  And on the day of the meeting, Quayle simply came up with his Secret Service detail and met with us.  The contrast reflected the vast changes in American society during the Global War on Terror and the expansion of the imperial vice presidency under Cheney.

I wanted to ask Cheney about the Iraq war.  But all questions were restricted to Social Security and the administration’s proposal, based on Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute models, to move the program toward a more private system.  Normally, three or four editorial-board members attend such meetings with politicians, allowing for real give-and-take.  This time, our editorial board was expanded from our editorial-page editors and writers to 15 people, the others coming from the news room and including the publisher.  So I got in only one question.

I asked, “Won’t your reform deeply involve the federal government in the equity markets, bringing political distortions to private industry?”

Cheney replied that “safeguards would be in place” to prevent political involvement.  He cited Chile, where pension privatization has worked well since 1981.  I didn’t get a follow-up.  I wanted to get his response to these two points: First, safeguards set up by the Republican Congress of 2005 could be changed easily by a future Democratic Congress.  And second, Chile is a small country with a GDP that is one percent that of the United States.  Any attempt to game Chile’s system would be met with immediate outflows of capital.  But the U.S. equity markets are so huge that it takes a while for bad policies to filter through and damage them.

In the end, the Bush administration’s hubris didn’t last long.  Social Security remained the “third rail” of American politics: Touch it, and you’re dead.  The reform was dropped.  Later that year, the Bush people fumbled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  By the end of 2005, Bush’s “political capital” had vanished.

When I read Cheney’s recent autobiography, In My Time, cowritten with his daughter Liz, I was curious about his take on the subject of our meeting.  But there is nothing in the book about the Bush administration’s most serious domestic-policy initiative of the second term: only two minor mentions of Social Security that I marked off, neither important enough to have been included in the Index.

Almost all of Cheney’s memoirs dealing with his term as vice president concern foreign policy.  Yet the Iraq war has (apparently) ended, and the Afghanistan war is scheduled to wrap up in 2014.  The impending insolvency of Medicare and Medicaid that the Bush administration inherited in 2001 were, and remain, the most pressing issues before the country.  In 2011, Social Security toppled into insolvency, meaning that it pays out more than it takes in.  And the trustees of Medicare issued a report in May 2011 calculating that the program will go insolvent in 2024.

On this issue, President Bush (or his ghostwriter) is better in his autobiography of 2010, Decision Points, where he writes, in Bush’s “from the gut” style that I almost liked,

In 2005, I did more than touch the third rail.  I hugged it.  I did so for one reason: It is unfair to make a generation of young people pay into a system that is going broke. . . . For someone taking on big issues, it didn’t get much bigger than reforming Social Security.  I decided there was no better time to launch the effort than when I was fresh off reelection.

Bush insists his plan was not “privatization.”  But it’s not clear what it would have been.  He laments that his plan was defeated by “rigid Democratic opposition,” “little bipartisan agreement in the first place,” and no “strong Republican backing.”  The crises of Social Security and Medicare remain.  And those crises have been made more acute by the debt-exploding effects of the immense costs of the Bush-Cheney wars—up to six trillion dollars, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz.

The Iraq war takes center stage in both books.  In Desert Storm in 1991, when Cheney was secretary of defense, American forces easily destroyed Saddam Hus­sein’s military.  The Yanks could have driven up to Baghdad and conquered the whole country.  Cheney explains why they didn’t:

At the time we had accomplished a tremendous military victory and the impetus was to be good for our word.  We’d told our Arab allies, the Saudis in particular, that we’d bring enough forces to liberate Kuwait and that we’d leave when we were done, that we were not interested in becoming an occupying power or leaving our combat forces in the desert for the long term.  In addition, neither the United Nations nor the U.S. Congress had signed on for anything beyond the liberation of Kuwait.  Now that our mission was done, we would begin to bring our troops home.

How quaint that a secretary of defense would deem it necessary to get Congress’s approval for a war—although the first President Bush didn’t go so far as to get an actual Declaration of War, as the Constitution demands.  In 1999, President Clinton launched his war on Serbia on his own whim.  And in 2011 President Obama did the same with his Libyan war.

In his book, Cheney does not quote his explanation of April 15, 1994, at the American Enterprise Institute (available on YouTube), when he said,

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place?  That’s a very volatile part of the world.  And if you take down the central government of Iraq, you can easily see pieces of Iraq fly off. . . . It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq. . . . And the question for the president in terms of whether we went on to Baghdad and took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein was: How many additional dead Americans was Saddam worth?  And our judgment was: not very many.  And I think we got it right.

Volatile, quagmire, casualties—his prediction was right on the dinar.  The cost of the Iraq war so far: 4,480 dead Americans; 33,169 wounded, many so seriously they will be hospitalized for the rest of their lives; and more than 109,000 dead Iraqis, according to U.S. government documents published in 2010 by WikiLeaks.

Cheney explains that things were different in 2003 because

the world looked very different.  We had suffered a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland.  We worried that Saddam was a dangerous nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction capability.  We had attempted for twelve years, with sixteen UN Security Council resolutions and international sanctions, to contain the threat he posed.  By 2003 that sanctions regime was crumbling, Saddam had corrupted the UN’s oil-for-food program to buy prohibited materials and enrich himself, and he was biding his time planning, as soon as he could, to reconstitute programs that had been halted or slowed in the aftermath of Desert Storm.  The calculation about the nature of the direct threat Saddam posed to America and the military action required to defend against that threat was very different in 2003.

Yes, the threat was very different: It was nonexistent.  Saddam’s military never recovered from the smashing it received in 1991.  Before the war began, Chronicles ran articles refuting Cheney’s points.  So did the Register’s editorial page and  Especially risible is Cheney’s rehash of Saddam ripping off the United Nations in light of the war’s immense cost to America and Iraq in blood and treasure.

Every Vietnam vet I’ve talked to remembered how our South Vietnamese allies ripped off the Americans.  Cheney might have known that, had he not taken five deferments to avoid being drafted.  When I served in the U.S. Army in West Germany (1979-82), the Germans and the Turks ripped us off.  Everybody rips off Uncle Sucker.  It is a tradition.

In 2003, Cheney, Bush, and the rest of the military establishment assumed Operation Iraqi Freedom would be a repeat of the 1991 war.  But Saddam used his dozen years between the wars, not to develop WMDs, but to prepare for a new invasion.  As the buildup to the invasion advanced in early 2003, Saddam legalized all gun ownership, emptied his armories, and cut his elite forces loose.  He knew he was finished, and he set a trap for the Americans.  When the war began, his conventional forces, as in 1991, buckled fast.  Then the guerilla war began.  It hasn’t stopped.

The Bush-Cheney case for war in 2003 cited Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and his ties to Al Qaeda terrorists fingered for the September 11 attack.  What does Cheney believe today?  He now admits “bad intelligence” regarding Iraqi WMDs.  But he makes a strained analogy to the decision by Adm. Chester Nimitz, acting on weak intelligence, to dispatch U.S. carriers to Midway, where they won their famous victory.  Like so many in the U.S. government and in American think tanks, Cheney cannot get beyond analogies to 1942.  The Imperial Japanese Navy of that year was the mightiest navy in the world before Midway, and the second mightiest after.  There is simply no comparison with Saddam’s beaten-down forces of 2003.

Cheney admits that, earlier allegations to the contrary, Saddam had no provable connections to Al Qaeda.  In his book, Bush confesses the same about Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda and the absence of Iraqi WMDs.  So, both the former president and the former vice president admit that the reasons they gave for launching the Iraq war were wrong.  That means they have to come up with new excuses to explain why the war was still a great idea.  Cheney insists that Saddam “was in violation of the Bush Doctrine, which held, in the president’s words, that ‘any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.’”  Both men bring up the expected bromides, citing the importance of advancing “freedom” and “democracy” in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.  As the character Octave says in Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has his reasons.”  Absent such reasons, Bush and Cheney could face arrest for violating international law prohibiting aggressive war and crimes against humanity, and end up bunking together in Slobodan Milosevic’s old cell at The Hague.

Neither Cheney nor Bush mentions the destruction of Iraq’s nearly 2,000-year-old Christian communities.  The faithful survived 1,400 years of Muslim rule, but not 1,400 days of “liberation” by a Christian President and Vice President leading a nation that still claims to be 75-percent Christian.

The last months of the Bush-Cheney years brought the economic meltdown we are still suffering.  Recent analyses show that median income for Americans hasn’t increased since the late 1990’s.  Adjusted for the cost of living, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is lower than it has been since the mid-1990’s.  The Bush years were a lost decade economically.

As I have written previously, the major culprits seem to me to be the immense deficits, contributing to the current national debt of $15 trillion; the wars whose high costs have driven the deficits and debt; and the inflation of the dollar while interest rates have been kept artificially low by the Federal Reserve Board.  Cheney writes that the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 “helped spur growth and create jobs.”  He didn’t note that the tax cuts, which expired at the end of 2010, have been extended.  This causes continuing uncertainty among businesses, canceling whatever benefits the tax cuts originally brought.

The most convincing cause Cheney finds for the bust is “a complexity of factors, including a surge in housing prices that was accompanied by a surge in mortgage lending,” leading to “mortgage agreements that were not sustainable.”  True.  But the mortgage meltdown began in late 2006, while home prices were still declining in most markets in spring 2012.  There has been no recovery, and all the palliatives advanced by Presidents Bush and Obama have only made matters worse.

“We were also committed to keeping spending down,” Cheney writes, in all seriousness.  Yet domestic spending alone rose faster under George W. Bush than during any other presidency since Lyndon Johnson’s.

Of these two books, Bush’s is the more enjoyable.  Bush writes with the enthusiasm of an eighth grader’s “What I Did Last Summer” paper about his winning baseball team.  Cheney, after several heart attacks, is burned out.  He should have said more about his influence on domestic policy in the Bush presidency.  Much of his memoir seems a cut-and-paste job from his diaries.

We deserve better from someone who did so much damage.


[In My Time,  by Dick Cheney, with Liz Cheney (New York: Threshold Editions) 565 pp., $35.00]

[Decision Points, by George W. Bush (New York: Crown Publishers) 497 pp., $35.00]