Dick Cheney’s Biggest Strategic Failure

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 12.15.49 PMDick Cheney’s biggest failures are surely moral. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, senselessly. The thousands of Americans killed, senselessly. The hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, on both sides, maimed and poisoned and scarred both physically and mentally.


See Juan Cole and Tomas Young (who will shortly die from wounds suffered in the Iraq War) for an accounting of that cost.

But there has been far too little accounting of the cost of Dick Cheney’s strategic choices.

Dick Cheney spent the first several months of the Bush Administration assessing where the US would get its energy in future years and how that would sustain our hegemonic role in the world. In his autobiographical novel, published in 2011, he had this to say about his Energy Task Force.

The report is one I am very proud of. I commend it to anyone looking to understand America’s energy challenges still today.


The environmental groups that criticized the report are all too often, in my experience, opposed to any increase in the production of conventional sources of energy. They don’t want to drill anyplace. They don’t want to mine coal anyplace. They seem to believe we can depend on alternative sources of energy, such as solar or wind. It’s my view — and it’s the view reflected in the report — that while we should develop alternative sources, in the final analysis, we can’t effectively address our energy problems in the near term nor can we remain competitive in the global economy unless we also produce more energy from conventional, domestic sources.

Right now, none of the alternative sources of energy can compete economically with petroleum and coal and other conventional sources. It’s also the case that time and time again, we have found that developing alternative sources has undesirable, unanticipated consequences. The push for ethanol fuel produced from corn, for example, resulted in driving the price of a bushel of corn up significantly. This had a huge impact on people who used corn for purposes other than fuel — purposes that weren’t subsidized. Cattleman, for example, were suddenly faced with significantly higher feed prices. [my emphasis]

While Cheney’s report did have a chapter on “Nature’s Power,” (which is not, interestingly, one of the two he accused critics of having not read), just one paragraph on any alternative source of power but hydropower shows up on the chapter on “Energy for a New Century.”

Hydropower is, to date, the most successful form of renewable energy. However, some forms of renewable energy generation—wind, geothermal, and biomass— have the potential to make more significant contributions in coming years, and the cost of most forms of renewable energy has declined sharply in recent years. The most important barrier to increased renewable energy production remains economic; nonhydropower renewable energy generation costs are greater than other traditional energy sources. The following chapter discusses renewable and alternative energy in greater detail

Never mind that Cheney’s understanding of the competitiveness of alternatives by 2011, particularly with coal, which the report boosted aggressively, was badly mistaken.

He argued in 2011 — 10 years after 9/11 and 7 years after the Iraq War had descended into a clusterfuck — that alternative energy has some nasty unintended consequences (he might have a point if he talked about how Ethanol contributed to increase food insecurity for actual human beings, which contributes to political instability, but apparently he sees feeding Americans cheap grain fed beef to be a higher priority).

And of course, the nasty unintended consequence that is climate change did not show up in this discussion in the least.

On May 16, 2001, Dick Cheney released a report declaring (based partly on a shortage in CA artificially caused by Enron) an energy crisis, and proposing recommendations to bring more fossil fuels online quickly, as well as nuclear power.

America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s.


This imbalance, if allowed to continue, will inevitably undermine our economy, our standard of living, and our national security.


Present trends are not encouraging, but they are not immutable. They are among today’s most urgent challenges, and well within our power to overcome. Our country has met many great tests. Some have imposed extreme hardship and sacrifice. Others have demanded only resolve, ingenuity, and clar­ ity of purpose. Such is the case with energy today.

We submit these recommendations with optimism. We believe that the tasks ahead, while great, are achievable. The en­ergy crisis is a call to put to good use the re­sources around us, and the talents within us. It summons the best of America, and offers the best of rewards – in new jobs, a healthier environment, a stronger economy, and a brighter future for our people.

Four months later, 19 Arabs, 15 of whom were Saudis, destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. All of them were motivated, in part, by America’s increasing presence in the Middle East.

The Bush Administration would suppress a good deal of evidence showing that not just those 15 Saudi hijackers but some highly placed members of the Saudi elite had ties to the attack. And while occasionally Bush Administration figures would suggest the Iraq War would enable Iraq to serve as a counterpoint to the Saudis and their ties to terror, the real reason was oil.

We went to war in Iraq because long before Bush won office, Cheney and his friends decided the US needed to put Iraqi production in hands more amenable to American wishes. And that unexamined decision prevented Cheney from seeing just how short-sighted such a policy would be.

In the decade since Dick Cheney decided to go to war in Iraq because renewable resources were too expensive and had some nasty unintended consequences, the US has spent $2 trillion on that war. Along the way, we have created an entire generation of new enemies, partly because of the incompetence and arrogance with which the war was waged.

We remain as reliant on our Saudi allies as we were at the start of the Iraq War.

By the end of November the US had already imported more than 450m barrels of crude from Saudi Arabia, more than it imported from Riyadh in the whole of 2009, 2010 or 2011, according to figures from the US energy department. For the first time since 2003, Saudi imports accounted for more than 15 per cent of total US oil imports. The Gulf as a whole accounted for more than 25 per cent, a nine-year high.

That’s true, in part, because our foreign policy continues to be dominated by dangerous plans — this time, some way to put Iranian oil resources in friendlier hands — to get more oil.

And throughout the 12 years since Cheney’s energy report, throughout the 10 years since he decided to go to war against Iraq rather than invest all that treasure into more effective solutions, we have been inching closer and closer to the tipping point at which climate change will spiral out of control.

Cheney was absolutely right to reevaluate where and how the US gets its energy in 2001. But he came to all the wrong conclusions from that reevaluation, and he pursued the worst possible strategy to deal with it.

He bears utmost responsibility for all the lives wasted. But he also needs to be held responsible for the opportunities wasted as well.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

25 replies
  1. bsbafflesbrains says:

    Can you ignore that he was President of Halliburton in this critique. Greed and self serving interest had to play a great part in his conclusions.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @bsbafflesbrains: Agree. But that doesn’t make the decision itself any less wrong.

    I also don’t dig into the role of Enron, besides mentioning the way they created the energy crisis he uses here.

    Clearly he had very personal motives to double down on petroleum. My point here was just to point out how much of a opportunity cost we’ve paid because of it.

  3. P J Evans says:

    There still seem to be a lot of people who haven’t figured out that oil is going away, and ‘drill baby drill’ isn’t going to fix that.

  4. der says:

    Again the question: Stupid or Evil? Could there be another choice?

    – State Sen. Dick Saslaw does not mince words about his support for uranium mining. A Northern Virginia Democrat who is also the Senate minority leader, Saslaw says burying the radioactive byproduct known as tailings underground should be a solution to environmental concerns. And he says he can’t be concerned about what might happen 100 [years] from now.

    “What about 10,000 years from now? I’m not going to be here,” Saslaw says. “I can’t ban something because of something that might happen 500 or 1,000 years from now.“

    Dick Saslaw and Dick Cheney are made from the same mold. The wise men who through the experience of life (70+ years) know what’s best.

    That 3rd choice? They just don’t give a shit. It’s all about the Benjamin’s. And power, because they can. Also, too pissing liberals off.

  5. bsbafflesbrains says:

    @der: Saslaw’s comments put him clearly in the stupid camp while Cheney’s actions put him clearly in the evil camp. As in “money is the root of…”

  6. der says:

    HIGHLIGHT:Jeremy Grantham is a man of interesting ideas, his prescient market calls over the 44 years of his career have identified numerous financial asset bubbles; he cautioned investors during the Japanese bubble, the dotcom fringe and the subprime crisis; today his urgent warning focuses on population growth and threats to the world`s natural resources.

    JEREMY GRANTHAM: It`s a lot of carbon but the bad news is that we already have in our proven reserves five times that amount. So we have enough to completely cook our goose and guarantee that our grandchildren are near starvation and so on with floods and —
    CHARLIE ROSE: And do you think we will?
    JEREMY GRANTHAM: No, I think — I`m not optimistic about the common sense of — of our species.
    CHARLIE ROSE: Of our species or our politicians?
    JEREMY GRANTHAM: Right of our species, no particularly the politicians. But I do think that in a real crisis whenthings really start to go wrong that we will belatedly have some determined
    CHARLIE ROSE: Haven`t things already really gone wrong?
    JEREMY GRANTHAM: — enough for scientists to be frightened. But not enough to frighten the average guy in the street.

    JEREMY GRANTHAM: So that — the coal and then oil & gas bought us a time-out, an amazing, but short time-out which will probably be about 250 years in which you have almost infinite energy, a gallon of gasoline is — is something like 200 man hours of labor.You know try pushing an SUV uphill and you will realize how powerful
    CHARLIE ROSE: Oil is.
    JEREMY GRANTHAM: Oil is and gasoline.
    CHARLIE ROSE: Right.
    JEREMY GRANTHAM: And so ordinary people became in a sense, richer than the kings had been in the past. And itmeant surplus, food, population growth, civilization, science — all of these wonderful things but we only had a limitedsupply, millions of years of stored energy from the sun. It`s in your bank account. And we`re draining down the bank account without any real regard for what we`re doing. And what it leaves our children and our grandchildren. It`s ourinheritance and we`re running through it.
    …JEREMY GRANTHAM: For the protection of the environment. And the money we get goes into it. And we spend it as effectively as we can to combat some of the nonsense out there in the airwaves. If you — if you have most of your stock value in the value of your oil reserves or your coal reserves, you will be pretty reluctant to entertain the thought that it would be poisonous to our long-term well-being to — to pump it out.So they are. And they oppose it. And they`ve opposed it very effectively and the propaganda has been — has been superb. But as I have often said it leaves me with the question have they no grandchildren these people.

    So, Stupid or Evil?

  7. karenjj2 says:

    in light of cheney’s haliburton, kbr, corrections corp, PNAC and saudi masters, i don’t really see where he made any “strategic mistakes.” world domination by corps with u.s. mercenary armies is working out very well for him in the present; and he has no alliegence other than that.

    cheney’s minions control or disrupt the important bits of u.s. gov’t –i.e. brennan-saudi cia, monica goodling’s vetted “justice dept” and continuing “wars” by his NORCOM, AFRICOM, ASIACOM, SOCOM AND NATO that keep much of the existing competitive oil off the market (iraq, libya, iran, niger/nigeria etc.) as well as delaying the afgan and iraq gas pipelines 10 years, plus preventing any progress in alternatives to oil have all been huge wins for his immediete life goals.

    and u.s. saudi oil imports at 25%?!

    the bush-bin laden dynastys must be sooo proud and pleased with him. he makes borgia and machavelli pale in comparison.

  8. What Constitution? says:

    Moral, schmoral. To The Hague with his ass. His failings were criminal, not a matter of personal perspective. If Cheney strongly felt “moral” needs to obtain greater oil for America and saw Iraq as a potential source for that, fine — but to lie us into a war of aggression by erecting false “motivations” as grounds for that war, that’s criminal. Had Cheney published his energy study and advocated attacking Iraq because they weren’t a sufficiently cooperative oil supplier to America, my bet is there would not have been any Iraq War. Buy the oil, you Dick you. But no, we were lied into that war. Oh, and there’s that delicious irony that the oil ultimately went China’s way under the “installed” regime, right? Both criminal and ineffective (can’t even argue “the lies worked” the way Dick glibly and criminally does with regard to illegal torture), with millions of lives and trillions of dollars wasted along the way.

    A “retrospective” analysis that includes Bush-era players recounting Cheney’s “how do we get Iraq’s oil” focus (viciously denied as unfounded speculation at the time or obfuscated before just this past week’s disclosures) should be a basis for demanding war crimes trials of Cheney and Bush, not a prop for “isn’t it odd that this was such an unfortunate misadventure in Iraq” navel-gazing. Attacking Iraq over oil reserves would constitute, and was, the international crime of aggressive war, and learning the actual facts confirms that the rest of the run-up was just as false and manipulated as it has been looking for years and was intentionally constructed that way to hide the real purpose. Put Cheney’s ass in jail.

    I completely agree that Cheney’s failings reflected moral ineptitude. But they’re so much more than that, just calling him a “moral failure” risks providing this malefactor with something he’ll trumpet as a “difference of opinion” excuse.

    His immorality is a matter of public record. The world’s failure to address his criminality is a prescription for repetition.

  9. seedeevee says:

    “It’s also the case that time and time again, we have found that developing alternative sources has undesirable, unanticipated consequences.”

    It is hard to admit that he was right on this point.

    See corn price hikes, food price hikes.

    He is still an evil scumbag . . . . .

  10. x174 says:

    Marcy–i think that this is one of you best postings.

    it clearly identifies the key instigator of our present disaster-laden state of the union (and world)–Cheney; it connects the global energy resource dilemma with the cost in lives both regionally (Iraq & US deaths and casualties) and globally (as evinced in our descent into the hegemonic maelstrom, known as post-9/11 American foreign policy); in addition, it ties together the economic, moral and environmental costs of that selfsame energy-war-environmental policy; it connects our past extremely (self-)destructive policy decisions with our present transparently absurd geopolitical options (e.g., the China pivot, and our re-colonialisation of Africa).

    in a nutshell, it connects a number of the central threads which make up US policy goals, policy options and irreducible constraints; it seems far-reaching in its cohering power through identification of the central hub of our present dilemma and how we have been led to the present grossly limited options (e.g., war, weapons and wrecking) available to the Obama Administration, once it became clear that it, too, went over to the “dark side.”

    it would be nice to see a follow-up post based on some kind of network analysis to see how much of the larger picture comes into focus (e.g., Afghanistan, Mali, Yemen, the EU, austerity, China, etc.) using the Cheney Administration and the his Energy Task Force as the central hub. (i recall the availability on the internet of social network analytical tools which allowed one to enter the name of an individual, such as Rumsfeld, and the search engine would graphically show a web of the individual’s known corporate and personal associations.)

    thanks again for sharing your analytic and synthetic prowess with us in your ability to both parse and synthesize complex information related to understanding how we found ourselves in this present grim era.

  11. peasantparty says:

    @karenjj2: Yes, they are all very proud of themselves.

    I have a lot of opinions about that Saudi relationship. I don’t know if Emptywheel will appreciate me plastering links all over her posting here, but you can google it if you use google. I don’t, but it really doesn’t matter which search engine u use, they are all connected at the roots.

    In years past, a long time ago, the US made a pact with Saudi Arabia.

  12. peasantparty says:

    @karenjj2: But, all those other corporations you mentioned are on spot.

    I’d like to add to your list with the Carlyle group which Daddy Bush is one of the major players. There is also a long list of MIC’s they all benefit from.

  13. peasantparty says:

    Back then, when I was yelling it is about oil, empire, and profits people thought I was insane, that my train had jumped the tracks and jostled lose all the bolts holding together my electrodes.

    I can’t tell you how it pleases me to see the majority of the truth coming to light. We still have a ways to go to connect the Saudi’s and Isreal to the mix, but it will come.

  14. P J Evans says:

    The Saudis want to be the biggest Muslim country on the block. Iraq and Iran, in their view, had to be taken down. (Iran has been the social and cultural center of the region for a couple of thousand years, since the death of Alexander the Great.)
    Israel will go along with that, as long as no one bothers them or checks what they’re up to. It’s pretty likely that they trained either our torturers or the ones who trained them.

  15. Julie B says:

    Dick Cheney checks every box in the criteria for a psychopath (see Hare). Cheney’s college roommate remarked something along the lines that Cheney had “the least amount of empathy he had every seen in a human being” – and that was when Cheney was in his teens.

    It’s counterproductive to call people “evil” because of all the religious and moral baggage around the word itself, but the historical and scientific proof is that psychopaths are capable of great harm, death and destruction because they lack any moral foundation. They are inter-species predators, devoid of humanity. They see other people, even their own family, as objects. Precious objects, perhaps, but objects nevertheless. That’s why war comes so naturally to psychopaths, it’s all just a bunch of chess pieces to them.

    The horrifying truth is that this isn’t just some hidden mutation, buried miles beneath the surface. Cheney made his way to the top mostly by doing what he does openly on TV, sneering menacingly and saying “SO!?” and basically being the worst sort of SOB there is.

    America is sick in its soul that someone like this could make it to the top. The ones like him give him a leg up and everyone else just lets him pass, looking the other way as he ravages his way to the top.

  16. P J Evans says:

    I wonder what the Saudis really want this term. They aren’t making those noises out of the goodness of their hearts (although I’m sure they’ll benefit).

  17. P J Evans says:

    Rumsfeld sent out a tweet to commemorate the occasion.
    He got answers. OY did he get answers!
    Google “blood-gargling psychopath” for a sample.

  18. lefty665 says:

    @der: Dick Saslaw did a lot of good things for a lot of years. He was approachable and on the right side of most issues. But… like so many, at the end of a good career he didn’t see the sign that said it was time to get off the stage.

    As bad as he has been on uranium, Saslaw was worse on redistricting in ’11. As majority leader, within 48 hours of pledging to fight, he capitulated and gave the Repubs their redistricting plan that cost the Dems the Virginia state Senate. When asked about his pledge to fight, his quote was “I lied”. Dick Saslaw is one more reason not to be a Dem.

  19. JohnT says:

    The Dick:

    The environmental groups that criticized the report are all too often, in my experience, opposed to any increase in the production of conventional sources of energy. They don’t want to drill anyplace. They don’t want to mine coal anyplace. They seem to believe we can depend on alternative sources of energy, such as solar or wind. …


    It’s also the case that time and time again, we have found that developing alternative sources has undesirable, unanticipated consequences.

    To that, The Dick, should answer this question

    The U.S. spends more on the war in Iraq in one day (about $300 million) than it does on the ANNUAL BUDGET for the primary government laboratory that is tasked with renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. As absurd as that is, a recipient of a grant from this lab has developed a 40% efficient solar cell.

    What if that lab had the funding equivalent of what the U.S. is spending on the war over a period of two or three days?

    And – Dick – before you, or your mouth breathing slack jawed minions dismiss this as lefty Islamo-fascist socialist propaganda, that 40% efficient solar cell was developed by a subsidiary of Boeing

    >>> Link <<< and be sure to look at the chart, Dick. But be prepared to scroll, and scroll, and scroll down

  20. Snoopdido says:

    This is not on topic, but based on Daniel Klaidman’s latest article (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/19/exclusive-no-more-drones-for-cia.html), it appears that President Obama’s “speech” about US drone policy is right around the corner and will be short:

    “At a time when controversy over the Obama administration’s drone program seems to be cresting, the CIA is close to taking a major step toward getting out of the targeted killing business. Three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the White House is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA’s lethal targeting program to the Defense Department.”

  21. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: I wonder if this will mean that the CIA has to turn over their brand new Saudi drone base to the US Air Force? Or will the Saudi’s get the keys?

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