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Taking Exception to Exceptional

Dick and Liz Cheney's unpersuasive new book says exactly what you'd expect it to say.

Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, by Dick and Liz Cheney, Threshold, 324 pages, $28

Dick and Liz Cheney's Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America is a bestseller, but I doubt many people are reading it. This book is a call to prayer, evocative for the faithful because of the very predictability that makes reading it unnecessary. The title and flag-draped cover testify to the former vice president and his daughter's purpose: to excoriate President Barack Obama's sins against the militarized conservative denomination of our civic religion.

The prologue begins with a quote from Daniel Webster's 1825 oration celebrating the laying of the cornerstone of Boston's Bunker Hill Monument, where Webster asked for "honest exultation" of the nation's role in delivering freedom to the world. It's a fitting start. One reason is that the Cheneys immediately make an error: They misattribute Webster's speech to the monument's dedication, which occurred in 1847. Another is that Webster's speech includes a subtle push for U.S. intervention in Greece's civil war. Were that intervention occurring today, the book would surely call it as insufficient, accuse Obama of abandoning Greece, and cast its fate as vital to U.S. security.

But what's especially fitting is that Webster's speech imagines the United States as the agent of divine purpose. The Cheneys similarly worship U.S. state power, insisting its virtue be taken on faith. That faith, and a penchant for argumentation by assertion and adjectives, is evident by the end of their first paragraph: "We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known." Alternatives (England, capitalism, language, God) are not worth considering. Empirics stay on script, unquestioning.

Hence the first section: 110 pages of U.S. national security history since World War II. By the Cheneys' account, despite the occasional Democratic stumble, military might, leaders' fortitude, and florid speeches prevailed until 2008. Part two, somehow of equal length, attacks the Obama administration for "retreating," "appeasing," an "apology" tour, Bhenghazi, the Iran deal, undoing surge magic in Iraq, inviting EMP pulse attacks, etc. The conclusion maps a road to resurrection in bullets points and bold-face.

Even most fervent acolytes can safely not read this book. The style is that of an undergraduate Young Republican hurriedly assembling cribbed facts and talking points, only with better proofreading. Given the structure just described, anyone with a passing familiarity with the Cheneys will know what's here.

If you're still unsure, a few numbers will give you the gist. Ten of the many quotations belong to Ronald Reagan. Seven are John F. Kennedy, four Winston Churchill, and three Franklin Roosevelt. Their subject is mostly America's martial prowess and greatness. Twice we're told how Truman ended debate about whether to build thermonuclear weapons upon hearing that the Soviets might. Dick Cheney himself is quoted six times, often at considerable length. On page 100, he even quotes himself quoting himself.

The Cheneys depict zero U.S. wars as unwise. (Vietnam is presented as a good cause lost by civilian interference with military requests.) The closest they come to expressing any doubt is when they predict the Iran deal will "more than likely" cause nuclear war.

Several factual errors recur. My favorite: "Barack Obama is the only president in American history—perhaps the only leader in world history—to slash defense spending in the midst of a war." (*) Tell that to Richard Nixon, who cut military outlays by almost 29 percent from 1969 to 1973, as the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. Adjusting for inflation and including war spending, that's slightly larger than the drawdown that's occurred under Obama (whose stated desire to end the drawdown the Cheneys ignore). There is also the first Bush administration, which was slashing Pentagon spending as it launched the Gulf War, with outlays falling nearly 13 percent from 1990 to 1991.

Dick Cheney, by the way, served in the Nixon administration and was George H.W. Bush's defense secretary during the Gulf War. It's also worth noting, because the Cheneys don't, that the recent military cuts came through a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal motivated partly by the Bush/Cheney administration's profligacy.

There are also a bevy of implausible opinions, one of which the Cheneys themselves refute. We're assured on page two that the United States "did not seek" to become a preponderant superpower. The point of the following paragraph and, indeed, the whole history lesson, is that wise leaders sought and maintained that status.

I was surprised only once, sort of, while reading Exceptional. After three lengthy chapters attacking Obama's alleged passivity and before an epilogue hoping for a Lincoln-like president to deliver us from our unprecedented peril, the Cheneys' bullet points endorse no additional wars or military alliances. They compare the Iran deal to Munich, making Obama Chamberlin and the Iranians Nazis, but do not suggest attacking Iran. They just want a better Munich. They portray ISIS as a cataclysmic threat in rapid advance, but they do not call for regular U.S. ground forces to directly fight it. Despite worrying that continuing Obama policies will leave Europe wholly "controlled" and "enslaved" by Vladimir Putin—and suggesting, incorrectly, that the 1994 Bucharest Agreement compels the United States to defend Ukraine—the Cheneys offer Kiev only more aid and sanctions against Russia.

That shows why Exceptional's thesis is wrong. Like almost everyone, Obama is more dovish than the Cheneys, but his foreign policy still fits squarely in the tradition of militarized global hegemony that they celebrate. Under Obama, the United States has exited no alliance. Instead it has mildly heightened troop commitments to European and Asian allies while looking to do more for its clients in the Gulf region. Military spending remains near Cold War highs, and wars are underway in six countries. Obama's counterterrorism policies mostly continue Bush's.

Today in U.S. security politics, the hawkish confront the very hawkish. The parties share foreign policy goals and differ mostly in the details of how to best deliver liberty abroad. The Cheneys' exceptionalist creed is healthy. They should more honestly exult.

(* Correction: When this review was first posted, the final words of that quote—"in the midst of a war"—were accidentally omitted.)

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  • Hank Phillips||

    The UT History department assured me the Manhattan project was well under weigh with bombs being built when FDR died and a surprised Truman had to be brought up to snuff on the subject by Henry Stimson and Leslie Groves. National Socialist genocide-for-Jesus made statebuster weapons imperative, and modern Jewish physicists made them possible. Look up the dates: FDR dies in April, Hitler suicide/NatSoc surrender in May, Trinity test in July and Hiroshima/Nagasaki/surrender-not-to-Soviet in August. Truman "decided" nothing, and had the good sense not to meddle. This Cheney catechism sounds about as well-researched as Adolph's Mein Kampf and Goebbels' 1929 novel Michael--all three tomes fairly oozing pious altruistic goo.

  • bluecanarybythelightswitch||

    ...

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    Hitler suicide was April. YOU LOSE.

    Sounds like your accuracy is about on par with the Cheneys' ghostwriter.

  • DJ1706||

    "National Socialist genocide-for-Jesus"

    And this right here shows how seriously we needn't take you.

    Which makes THIS hilarious:

    "sounds about as well-researched as Adolph's Mein Kampf and Goebbels' 1929 novel Michael"

  • Arthur45||

    I would suggest a course in Beginner's Writing for you. This is pure garbage. I have no clue as to what you are ranting about.

  • greasonable (was sthgrau)||

    WWII era nuclear weapons were not thermonuclear.

  • Sevo||

    WIH did this pile of crap come from?
    Hank, you need to step well back from the keyboard. Not far enough, keep going. Nope, keep going...
    When you fall off the tenth story, you're far enough back; keep going....

  • Adans smith||

    I'm not sure how you got here or why your on this site.Please leave..You are a poster child for after birth abortion.

  • DJ1706||

    "National Socialist genocide-for-Jesus"

    And this right here shows how seriously we needn't take you.

    Which makes THIS hilarious:

    "sounds about as well-researched as Adolph's Mein Kampf and Goebbels' 1929 novel Michael"

  • DJ1706||

    Whoops.

  • bassjoe||

    A bestseller? One of those books that's purchased in bulk and given away by "nonprofit advocacy groups" as "gifts" for certain donation amounts, huh?

  • FloridaProf||

    I purchased my copy. I suspect most everyone else did as well.

  • phandaal||

    My condolences.

  • Sevo||

    Joking, right?

  • Adans smith||

    It 's Florida,he bought it for the pictures.

  • Rockabilly||

    Dick less Cheney strikes again

  • DenverJ||

    Pretty sure Liz Cheney is Dick's daughter, not his wife, Friedman.

  • FloridaProf||

    Excellent point.

  • DenverJ||

    Yes, makes you wonder if he knows the Cheney's as well as he thinks he does.
    In fact, it's pretty common knowledge.

  • DenverJ||

    I see they changed the text, without so much as a thanks. Seriously, that kind of mistake ruins your entire credibility, especially when the gist of your criticism is that you know who the Cheney's are well enough to know their argument in advance, and that they are making errors. You didn't even know that they were father and daughter, and Reason thinks you're fit to write on politics.
    And Reasons editors didn't catch it either?
    And it's not a spell correct thing either; "daughter" and "wife" aren't even close.
    Not that I don't think Cheney is a war mongering fool. But I'm not going to take you seriously, either.
    Jesus, Reason, stop printing this drivel.

  • rocks||

    Chenney's GAY daughter, any and criticism of the book is homophobic for not praising a marginalized person

  • Jay Dubya||

    Cheney has two daughters. Liz is not gay - she is currently married (to a man, a lawyer even) and together they have five children.

  • rocks||

    Come on, they're sisters, if one is gay so it the other one, that's how it works

  • Jay Dubya||

    Dick Cheneys wife is LYNNE ANNE Cheney, not Friedman. Corrections that are also wrong are my favorite corrections!

  • DenverJ||

    Wrong coma, dude. Your bad.

  • sarcasmic||

    What made America exceptional was the economic freedom that allowed the nation to prosper.

  • DenverJ||

    Yes, but what makes the American government exceptional is it's overwhelming military strength. And Cheney, just like those he hates on the left, confuse the American government for America itself.

  • sarcasmic||

    The government could never have afforded its huge military had the taxpayers not been free to prosper.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I wouldn't be too sure. The proportion of taxes that goes to the military isn't really all that high. Ashcan a bunch of expensive social programs, and a not-so-free State could afford a lot.

  • Sevo||

    C. S. P. Schofield|9.26.15 @ 12:49PM|#
    "I wouldn't be too sure. The proportion of taxes that goes to the military isn't really all that high. Ashcan a bunch of expensive social programs, and a not-so-free State could afford a lot."

    The proportion should be higher; the amount should be, oh, 1/8 of what we are spending.
    Tired of defending the Euros, the Japanese and all the rest free-riding on the US taxpayer.

  • ||

    What makes America exceptional is that it was the only country in the history of the world that was founded upon an idea. The idea was personal Liberty and the individual's assendency over government. All others had been founded upon a natural border, a nation of people, historical inheritance, etc. etc.

    What you guys are referring to are the accomplishments thereof of the individual's Liberty and supremancy over government and rulers.

  • Jay Dubya||

    only? hardly. first? maybe. there were a lot of other (successful) revolts of colonies that were idea driven. the french revolution was at least as ideological as the american revolt if not more. Certainly every Marxist revolt has been ideological.

  • Jay Dubya||

    even first is a bit of a stretch. "founded on an idea" is so vague its very close to nonsense.

  • BearOdinson||

    But even the French Revolution was about Frenchmen. Our founders created a brand new country, not based on ethnicity, but based on liberty, as imperfect as it was (but there is no perfection).

  • bassjoe||

    Huh?

    The Enlightenment ideas that drove the French Revolution were undoubtedly universal. So universal every other country in Europe -- generally ruled by royal families as out of touch as Louis XVI -- freaked out and allied with each other to stop the revolutionaries. Those same ideas were adopted by the America revolutionaries.

  • DenverJ||

    I believe bassjoe makes an excellent point. I think there was a difference between the French and American revolutions, however, and I think it hinged on the fact that France was an already mature nation, with a large shared history of pride and grievances. It would have been hard for their revolution to not be French.
    The 13 colonies, of course were British, who had a history of telling the crown where to shove it. And, they weren't in a cramped old European country: They had an entire continent waiting to be taken.

  • Crazyotto||

    What made America exceptional is the high caloric intake of fast food

  • MattFC||

    Liz Cheney is Dick Cheney's daughter, I believe. Not wife.

  • DenverJ||

    WOW, so they just changed it today?
    Sloppy, Reason, real sloppy.

  • DenverJ||

    Ok yesterday. Still.

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  • Michael Price||

    "We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known."
    http://memegenerator.net/instance2/2103004

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  • buybuydandavis||

    The Cheneys similarly worship U.S. state power, insisting its virtue be taken on faith. That faith, and a penchant for argumentation by assertion and adjectives, is evident by the end of their first paragraph: "We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known."
    ####

    They clearly state it is an empirical fact, not a matter of faith.

    If you'd like to debate that claim, do so, but don't give us dishonest bullshit that they "insist its virtue be taken on faith".

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