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Cheney's MAD

Dick Cheney's MAD, just not in the way you think. As Time, the AP and virtually every pundit across the political spectrum debate the meaning of Che

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Dick Cheney's MAD, just not in the way you think. As Time, the AP and virtually every pundit across the political spectrum debate the meaning of Cheney's ubiquity on your television screen, it may be an old Cold War theory which best explains his strategy. The former vice president isn't merely trying to rewrite history or work the jury with his repeated claims that torture "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives" and that there was "nothing devious or deceitful or dishonest or illegal about what was done." With his brinksmanship, Dick Cheney is threatening the political equivalent of Mutual Assured Destruction to produce a stalemate he apparently believes he will win.

Cheney's escalating campaign against the Obama administration began within days of the election. His charge that President Obama will "raise the risk to the American people of another attack" has reached a crescendo with appearances on CBS and Fox News this week. And while Cheney Tuesday blasted Obama's approach on Iran as a "giant conspiracy" which is "bound to fail," next week at the American Enterprise Institute he will offer a full-throated defense of the Bush administration's national security policies, including its regime of detainee torture.

All of which begs the question: why would a wildly unpopular figure who has proclaimed he has no future political ambitions mount such an unprecedented public campaign to criticize his successors?

Over the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen ponders "is Dick running for something?" For its part, the AP explores the gamut of explanations, ranging from the sincere ("it could be that Cheney really sees a threat out there"), routine revisionist history ("He sees himself in a position where his legacy is called into question, and he wants to get his story out before history gels") to the Freudian:

"This is not the same level of control and discipline Cheney's exercised over the last 40 years," said John Baick, professor of history at Western New England College. "I think it grows out of a deep sense of hurt and betrayal."

Time's Michael Duffy joins in the burgeoning "meaning of Dick" cottage industry to explain why Angler is now "so chatty all of a sudden." Noting Cheney's belief that "in politics as well the best defense is often a good offense," Duffy rightly concludes Cheney is seeking to "refocus the question about waterboarding and other interrogation techniques from whether they were legal to whether they worked."

But lost in these analyses is Cheney's real objective and strategy is his twilight struggle against the Obama administration. For that, one need only look to Dick Cheney's Cold Warrior roots and the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

By raising the stakes over the torture issue with his repeated appearances, Dick Cheney isn't merely daring Democratic Congress and the Obama administration to investigate him and other members of the Bush torture team. Cheney's is a scorched earth game he believes he can win.

Cheney's MAD strategy goes something like this. If the DOJ or Congress proceeds with torture probes or prosecutions, Republican retaliation will be massive and total. Nominees will be blocked, legislation filibustered and the gridlock in Washington permanent. The blame for the carnage, the theory goes, will go to the side (in this case, Democrats) which launched the first strike. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

With the prospect of an atomic political conflict assured of leaving both parties devastated, stalemate is the only alternative. And in Dick Cheney's case, stalemate equals victory. By ratcheting up the public pressure, Cheney is forcing Obama's hand: act on torture, or back down. And by backing down, Obama would in essence codify the Bush administration's criminality. In the unsteady equilibrium which would endure, the Bush torture team would appear to be right, seemingly vindicated. Like the Soviet threat, the risk from torture prosecution would be successfully contained. In his eyes, Cheney's omnipresence isn't a nightmare for Republicans, but their path back.

As the Associated Press noted, "Cheney seemed even more exercised after Obama released memos detailing how 'enhanced interrogation' became a tactic used during the Bush administration."

Cheney's MAD, all right. Just not in the way most people think.

(This piece originally appeared at Perrspectives.)

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