Monday, June 25, 2007

Cogito ergo Cheney

Many western philosophers look upon Rene Descartes (1595-1650) as the Father of modern philosophy. In his Meditations on First Principles, Descartes examines the processes involved in reasoning – that is, how humans are able to “know” anything. His conclusion is popularly phrased in Latin as “Cogito ergo sum”– “I think, therefore I am.”
(In the Meditations, his formulation is translated as “I think, I exist.”)

Many U.S. constitutional and foreign policy specialists look upon Vice-President Dick Cheney as the author ( or perhaps “father”) of a number of “first principles” in the conduct of the administration of George W. Bush, especially in the so-called “war on terror.”

This juxtaposition (definitely not a comparison) came to mind as I read the current multi-part series by the Washington Post on the revolutionary influence and highly individualistic style of the Vice-President when dealing with the process of policy formulation in the administration of George Bush. On national defense in general and the so-called “war on terror” in particular, Cheney’s influence is as unmistakable as was Descartes’ on subsequent western philosophy for nearly three centuries.

This is not to elevate Cheney to the level of Descartes, but merely to point out that there are certain parallels in the methodology developed or employed by each man in pursuit of his goals. For Descartes the philosopher – scientist, the objective was to demonstrate that scientific knowledge depended on the power of reason to analyze information and not on what the body might or might not sense about “reality.” His approach was to doubt everything that we “know” about the physical world because we have no reliable way of proving that the objects we sense actually exist as they are part of the “not I.” All any individual can be sure of is this “I” that we know does exist because it is experienced as mind not dependent on the external senses. But once this “I” is irrefutably established, we can explore the physical universe that we experience through a multitude of daily interactions.

For Cheney the business executive – politician, the overriding objective as vice-president has been to isolate and seize control over certain areas of governance. Having cut them off from the “outside world,” he would with great secrecy develop unilateral and U.S. centric policy, get President Bush’s endorsement (and often get Bush to announce it) and then try to make the world conform to the policy as dictated rather than deal with allies and friends whose own interests might not completely agree with the Cheney mind-set. Only when forced by circumstances he absolutely could not manipulate has he acceded to internationalism

Descartes characterized his opponents as skeptics – those who doubt everything simply for the sake of doubting. Descartes too, begins by doubting everything, but he asserts that this is but a device that allows him to re-start with a clean slate the quest to determine how we can know anything with absolute certainty and therefore know “truth.”

Cheney characterizes his opponents as inconsistent “flip-floppers” and indecisive. During the 2994 presidential campaign, he opined that had Democrats been in power in 1990, they would have been so indecisive that no response would have been made to reverse Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait.

Cheney lives in a world where truth is what he sees as possible and right is anything that will block bad possibilities from being translated from thought into action that harms the U.S. In post-September 11, 2001 America, Cheney is “absolutely convinced that the threat we face now, the idea of a terrorist in the middle of one of our cities with a nuclear weapon, is very real and that we have to use extraordinary measures to deal with it.” That message was voiced as a looming “truth” in February 2002 in an obviously coordinated series of presentations by Cheney, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in which all three referenced the reality that a “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud” loomed in America’s future unless Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

Indeed, without identifying by name who was leading the war hawks, Bob Woodward in his book, Plan of Attack, notes that in the post-September 11, 2001 White House “there's some pressure to go after Saddam Hussein.” In fact, it seems more likely that it was Cheney, not Bush, who was the real hidden hand that directed the Pentagon to re-examine and start updating its contingency plans for Iraq.

Cheney, the Secretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration when Iraq invaded Kuwait, said that he fully supported the elder Bush’s decision not to press on to Baghdad after Saddam’s troops were routed from Kuwait. In a largely unnoticed August 1992 speech in Seattle, Washington to the Discovery Institute, Cheney told the audience that his opposition rested on the question of “how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq."

Yet, with minor modifications, this was exactly the approach attempted in 2003.What happened then was exactly what Cheney said in 1992 would have been the case had Desert Storm reached Baghdad:

"All of a sudden you've got a battle you're fighting in a major built-up city, a lot of civilians are around, significant limitations on our ability to use our most effective technologies and techniques.”

If this was what Cheney saw would be the case in 1991, what changed in the intervening 12 years? Given Cheney’s penchant for going to “undisclosed” locations and operating in great secrecy, we may never know. One wonders if even Dick Cheney knows other than he has a vision of American in which he believes so strongly that no information can change it.

But whereas Descartes’ ground of certainty is the power of reason to affirm the “I” – a dynamic process -- Cheney’s ground of certainty is fixed, frozen in time, unable to be modified, and held with an almost religious fervor that passes for perfect certainty.

That used to be the realm of the gods alone.

2 Comments:

Blogger rasphila said...

An interesting parallel, although, as you admit, it doesn't completely work. The chief difference between Descartes' work and Cheney's is that Descartes published his work so that others could respond to it while Cheney works in near-total secrecy. Publishing their work is what philosophers are supposed to do. It makes them accountable for their thoughts and mistakes. That's also supposed to be true of politicians in a democracy. Clearly Cheney hasn't learned this in all his years in public life.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

Cheney is an opportunist. He will use whatever is at hand to advance his objectives.
I am less inclined to compare him with Descartes and more inclined to compare him with Fagan. Watch your pockets and your children closely.

10:19 PM  

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