A disagreeable visit from Cheney

In 1963, caught up in the excitement caused by his visit to West Berlin, President Kennedy overstated his case. Speaking before a million ecstatic Berliners, he said disdainfully, “And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin!”

The problem was, Kennedy was one of those who had been promoting peaceful coexistence with the communists—he was attacking his own policy.

Dick Cheney’s visit to Reno saw a similar resort to overstatement.

“We will never seek a permission slip to defend the United States of America,” he said.

It’s a line he has used repeatedly. And it’s dishonest. Cheney knows perfectly well that by demanding that the United States seek international support for Bush war making, administration critics are not kowtowing to anyone. They are trying to enforce the United States’ own policies in a situation where George Bush has a peculiar definition of what constitutes defending the nation.

Since the emergence of nation states, an effort to create a body of international law has moved forward. The United States has supported that effort. Often there were those who spoke as disdainfully of international law as Cheney does. “What is this international law?” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini asked after the U.S. embassy in Iran was seized in 1979.

In that hostage crisis, the United States took its case to the World Court. In future World Court cases, defendants will be able to quote the contemptuous words of the vice president of the United States on international law as a “permission slip.” For short-term political gain, Cheney hands ammunition to every war criminal challenging the authority of international law. If it is not binding on us, why should it be binding on Serbia?

Nor was that the only disagreeable aspect of Cheney’s visit to Reno. Once again, the Bush administration made political use of the Secret Service.

Building on Ken Starr’s use of Secret Service agents in his prosecution of Bill Clinton, the Bush administration, since the Sept. 11 attack, has coaxed the Service into classifying its critics as security threats, in turn convincing too-compliant local officials to keep protestors out of the line of sight of presidential and vice presidential events.

In Reno, the Secret Service was prevailed on to categorize former Nevada State PTA president Wendell Newman of Washoe Valley as a threat to the vice president because Newman is a John Kerry supporter.

If Republican officials want to screen out their critics from their political events, they have a right to do so. But using the protection unit of the Secret Service to provide political cover is reprehensible. Any distraction from the agency’s real function endangers the lives of agents—and of those they protect.

The Cheney visit was very revealing of what kind of administration this is.