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Donald Trump and the Cheney Doctrine

In the summer of 2006, the journalist Ron Suskind—whose reporting on the political culture of the George W. Bush administration is sadly relevant again—exposed the governing principle that lay under nearly every American foreign policy blunder of the last decade.

According to Suskind, Vice President Dick Cheney first articulated this doctrine in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and it was so influential within the Bush White House, Suskind named his book after it.

“If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,” Cheney reportedly said at an intelligence briefing in November 2001. “It’s not about our analysis…it’s about our response.”

To an extent Cheney was simply expressing the predominant impulse of America’s still-battered psyche. But, happily for him, a rule making massive overreaction the default mode of the national security apparatus allowed him to mow over institutional hurdles—like evidence-based decision making—that might have stopped us from instituting a global torture regime or invading Iraq.

Cheney essentially imposed a perverse interpretation of the precautionary principle on all of American foreign policy, with consequences far deadlier and more destabilizing than the threats he cited to justify his actions ever warranted. Under Cheney’s precautionary principle, it is acceptable to unleash hell, and jettison all moral values, if the alternative is accepting a very small risk of terrorism, for which your administration or political party might be blamed. In a way, this kind of thinking—the cover-your-ass political arithmetic of the global war on terrorism—is Cheney’s most enduring legacy.

But his basic formulation, the application of risk management to policy in general, isn’t typically a recipe for disaster. It is in many ways the primary job of policymakers to assess what we stand to lose by accepting or mitigating various risks, and to decide whether the benefits are worth the costs. In making decisions along these lines, politicians rightly take into account what is within their power, what is within the power of the government, and how history will remember where they stood. The precautionary principle tells us we should accelerate the transition to clean energy, even at large up front cost, to avert the tail risk of climate-change catastrophe.

It also tells us we should impeach President Donald Trump, quickly.

Indeed, if Republicans were truly committed, in Cheneyite fashion, to thwarting low-probability national security disasters with extraordinary measures, they would have begun the process of removing Donald Trump from the presidency months ago.


The dangers Trump poses to the country and the world aren’t liberal contrivances, but the central abiding concern of many administration officials and legislators of both parties. And yet it has fallen overwhelmingly to liberals to express this concern publicly, which is what made it explosive news when Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)—the retiring chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—confessed on the record that “every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain [Trump],” whose conduct on the world stage could set us “on the path to World War III.”

These kinds of dire warnings are a dime a dozen on liberal news websites and in liberal think tanks, but it should outrage everyone who cares about humankind that Corker’s assessment has also been the secret consensus of Republicans in Washington for the entirety of Trump’s presidency. It is common but undisclosed knowledge in Washington, documented in reporter notebooks, but only where the words “OFF THE RECORD” are scratched nearby—because before Corker went public, Republicans were only willing to acknowledge the obvious, as long as the general public was never allowed to learn their true thoughts.

It has been widely noted already that Corker’s belated candor was a necessary but insufficient step—satisfying, but of limited use unless it serves as a gateway to more meaningful action. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has suggested that Corker use his committee gavel to hem Trump in before he sabotages the global powers agreement standing between Iran and a nuclear weapon. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) would like Congress to take the power to order a first strike against North Korea out of Trump’s hands. The Atlantic’s James Fallows sums up Corker’s obligations as follows:

He can issue subpoenas and summon executive branch witnesses as soon as he can get his colleagues back in town. He can draft legislation about the procedure, the grounds, and the justifications before the U.S. commits troops to war. He could urge his colleagues toward the next step through their stages-of-tragedy relationship with Trump. Stage one was carping and dismissal during the first half of 2016, when he was an entertaining long-shot. Stage two was Vichy-regime acquiescence to him during the campaign. Stage three was “support” early this year, toward the goal of the Gorsuch confirmation and the hope of a tax-cut bill. Now we see the inklings of stage four, with the dawning awareness of what Corker spelled out: that they have empowered something genuinely dangerous. It’s time for Corker to act on that knowledge, and his colleagues too.

Any steps Republican legislators take beyond the marker Corker laid down would be preferable to resuming the ostrich act they’ve perfected over the past year and a half, or to siding with Corker in principle, while ruefully doing nothing.

But the powers of the presidency in the hands of an unstable narcissist are too vast for committee hearings or sense of the Senate resolutions to do much good. Even a tightly chaperoned president like Trump still has the world’s largest megaphone and unparalleled authority over the armed services of the United States.

The danger Trump poses to global safety won’t pass until after he no longer enjoys these tools. If Corker and other liberated Republicans believe their power is limited to starting difficult conversations, then they have to make this same logical leap, and go public with it. Fortunately for them, the case is clear. The line between ending the danger and the impeachment power is far straighter and less destructive than the line between reducing the threat of terrorism and the Bush-Cheney foreign policy regime.

No thinking people, let alone people in Corker’s position, should ever ask themselves, “what would Dick Cheney do?” but Republicans should ask themselves how they will answer for their silence if they let Corker’s warning fade into background and then Trump drags us into calamity. Ironically, now more than ever, we need them to embrace the 1 percent doctrine all over again.