When George W Bush fingered 59-year-old Dick Cheney as his Vice-Presidential running mate, America’s right-wing pundits erupted in praise. They pointed to the Nebraska-born Cheney’s government experience as White House chief of staff and Secretary of Defense. They hailed his ‘cool-headedness’, moral rectitude and success as a no-nonsense frontperson for Big Oil. _Time_ magazine even described Cheney as a ‘grey sheriff from some late-period Clint Eastwood western, riding out of retirement to drive off the rascals who’d plundered his town’.
What the press barely mentioned were the skeletons in Sheriff Cheney’s closet. Now that he is second-in-command of the most powerful nation on earth these skeletons are worth dusting off – especially in the area of foreign policy where Cheney will wield great, if not definitive, influence in the Bush camp.
When he accepted the Vice-Presidential nomination in August 2000, Cheney said he would offer Americans ‘a stiff dose of truth’. Not necessarily what one would expect from his past pattern of bobbing, weaving and dissembling. During the 1989 US invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, as Secretary of Defense Cheney ran the Pentagon with an iron fist, including unprecedented restrictions on the press. Ironically, one of the ink-stained wretches who felt Cheney’s wrath was _Time_ photojournalist Warren Bocxe. The ungrateful scribe was blindfolded and detained for 30 hours (by fellow Americans, not Iraqis) for allegedly violating Defense Department press restrictions. Working with sidekick General Colin Powell (now Bush’s Secretary of State) Cheney exaggerated the accuracy of US missile strikes, covered up mistakes and in the words of one ABC TV producer ‘duped’ the media. David Hackworth, an ex-Army Colonel who covered the war for _Newsweek_ was blunt: ‘The American people did not get the truth.’
Cheney’s behaviour as Defense Secretary was tyrannical, so it’s no surprise that his voting record in Congress was consistently hard-line. Domestically, he voted against affirmative action; against the ‘Head Start’ program for impoverished children; against the Clean Water Act and against sanctions on air polluters. However, he was not always Mr No-no: he did vote in favour of easier access to handguns.
Cheney’s shameful record continued in foreign-policy voting (the area of ‘expertise’ on which Bush will supposedly draw). He voted (not just once but ten times) against economic sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa. And he was one of only two US Congress members who voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Asked to justify his egregious voting record, Cheney adroitly side-stepped the issue. ‘The American people want to hear about the future, not the past,’ he quipped.
Perhaps worse is Cheney’s slimy business career. During five years as head of the Dallas-based oil-services company, Halliburton, the firm openly courted regimes that flagrantly violated human rights – including Iran, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Libya, Nigeria and even the current US _bête noire_, Iraq.
The most extreme case of ‘constructive engagement’ (the euphemism US business uses to justify profiting from unrepentant, despotic regimes) was Halliburton’s dealings with Burma. Washington cut diplomatic ties with Burma a decade ago and most American corporations have since pulled up sticks and left. Not Halliburton. Cheney was not about to let little things like a vicious dictatorship and massive human-rights violations stand in the way of a profitable business venture. He helped broker a deal for a major pipeline project in Burma even though, in the opinion of one US federal judge, Halliburton already knew the project was benefiting from forced labor and ‘numerous acts of violence’ by the Burmese military.
According to _The Texas Observer_, the Gulf War helped Cheney launch ‘one of the largest privatization efforts in the history of the Pentagon, steering huge military contracts to private contractors’. At Halliburton he cashed in on the same contracts he set in motion. When Cheney started with the company it was doing less than $300 million in business with the Defense Department. By the end of 1999 the amount had grown to more than $650 million, a classic case of what some critics call ‘revolving-door politics’.
But that’s all behind Dick Cheney now – at least for another four years. Not that he’ll run out of pocket money in the meantime. During his career with Halliburton Cheney ‘earned’ $12.5 million in salary and bonuses, received stock options worth another $39 million and got a $20 million ‘golden handshake’ when he left. Hey, Big Oil knows that it pays to have friends at the top.