Well, well, well. Washington feted its new president at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner this past weekend, which included some shots by comedienne Wanda Sykes at Rush Limbaugh. Avoiding the festivities, Dick Cheney remained defiantly surly, spreading as much gloom as he could. Cheney, who tried to police the ranks of the Bush administration, has now apparently gone into a similar line of work in his retirement. He views himself as the conscience of conservatism, defining who is and is not the genuine article when it comes to being a member of the Republican Party.
Speaking on CBS' Face the Nation, Cheney announced that Colin Powell is, in fact, no longer a Republican. Instead, like Arlen Specter, the general is apparently a turncoat even though he himself hasn't indicated that he's even contemplating switching parties. Powell may have served George W. Bush loyally. But Cheney indicated that if he was in the political foxhole, the fellow he would want beside him isn't Powell, whom he has tussled with over the years for being too soft in defending American national interests. Instead, he'd prefer Rush Limbaugh. "If I had to choose in terms of being a Republican," Cheney said, "I'd go with Rush Limbaugh." No doubt Rush has better judgment and discernment than Powell, who has merely fought in Vietnam, worked his way up to becoming a general, correctly warned about the perils of invading Iraq and served the past three Republican presidents. "I didn't know he was still a Republican," Cheney concluded about Powell.
The true source of Cheney's ire is Barack Obama, whom Powell has backed. Cheney continues to portray Obama as a lily-livered coward, who is recklessly abandoning the policies of the Bush era that safeguarded America from al-Qaeda. But with the Taliban encroaching upon Pakistan, just how successful were the Bush administration's policies? The colossal blunder that Bush and Cheney committed was concluding that they could divert their attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. That decision, more than any other, explains why al-Qaeda, far from being a spent force, is making something of a comeback, at least in Pakistan, which is currently battling, or pretending to battle, the Taliban. As Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari put it on NBC's Meet the Press, "You've lost him [Osama bin Laden] in Tora Bora-I didn't." Anyway, Obama is actually ramping up the fight in Afghanistan, devoting greater military and civilian resources to defeating the Taliban, which doesn't comport with Cheney's depiction of an America running scared.
The fundamental problem with Cheney's approach, along with that of fellow conservatives like Senator James Inhofe, is that it offers a caricature of foreign policy on the issue of restructuring the defense budget. Already, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is being depicted as the enemy of American national security for trying to modernize the armed forces by slashing big budget items and focusing on irregular warfare-which is to say the kind of wars that America is currently fighting, and will probably continue to fight. In the May 11 Washington Times, for example, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney dubs Gates the "most dangerous secretary of defense we've ever had."
This is nonsense. To his credit, Gates, among other things, is targeting missile-defense programs for cutbacks. These systems are nice in theory, but have offered scant evidence over decades of research that they amount to anything other than a new version of the Maginot Line. In other words, missile defense is about as useless in protecting America from attack as waterboarding suspected terrorists. For Cheney and other conservatives, though, missile defense and demonizing much of the world have become holy writ.
Russia will likely remain a bugaboo for the Right, which has become addicted to viewing Moscow as America's permanent enemy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently visited Washington and met with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Relations may well improve between America and Russia.
What might really shake up conservatives, however, is an accommodation with Iran. Iran's release of Roxana Saberi indicates that the regime may be preparing for real talks with the Obama administration. Any modus vivendi, particularly on the issue of nuclear arms, will require patience, but what if Obama ends up next year in Tehran, feted by adoring crowds, much as Richard M. Nixon headed to China? With his charisma and preternatural calm, Obama might unsettle the mullahs as much as he does American conservatives-not to mention Benjamin Netanyahu who's visiting Egypt before he heads to Washington on May 18, in the hopes of creating an anti-Iran alliance. If Obama succeeds in restoring relations, maybe he'll even name Colin Powell ambassador to Iran.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.