By William Fisher
These were messages that needed to be delivered: Russia must stop backsliding on its commitment to democratic reform. It must stop using its oil as a tool of blackmail. Belarus must stop beating peaceful demonstrators, "disappearing" dissidents, and promoting a climate of fear under a government that subverts free elections.
But what was President Bush thinking when he chose Vice President Dick Cheney to go to Lithuania as the messenger?
Could there be anyone less credible on subjects like democratic reform and open government?
More than any other Administration figure save the president himself, it was Dick Cheney who orchestrated the cherrypicking of pre-Iraq intelligence. Who hyped the need to invade with imagery of mushroom clouds. Who promised that the Iraqis would greet us as 'liberators'. Who told us the insurgency was in its "last throes." Who put the Administration's lackey lawyers to work to find justifications for torture, and opposed John McCain's proposal to ban it. Who went to court to keep secret the details of the so-called energy policy he discussed with leaders of Big Oil. Who opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission and suppressed a Senate report on whether the Administration manipulated pre-war intelligence. Who fought every effort to declassify information the American people have a right to know. Who battled to stem all leaks except those he could use to have his minions go after the wife of an Administration critic?
Dick Cheney is arguably the most powerful vice president in American history. And un-arguably the most dangerous.
Cheney told Baltic and Black Sea leaders at the summit in Vilnius that Russia had rolled back on freedoms ranging from "religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties.'' He called Belarus the "last dictatorship in Europe'' and urged the release of opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevich and other pro-democracy activists.
"A climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections,''
he said. "There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this
He is undeniably right.
But what is truly grotesque is the utter hypocrisy of Dick Cheney lecturing anyone about democracy and human rights. He has dishonored these core American values in his own country.
Then there's the question of the geopolitical wisdom of his remarks?
Cheney's staunch championship of democracy in Russia and Belarus comes at a time when the U.S. is seeking Putin's support for a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran curb its nuclear ambitions. Cheney's harsh remarks could further antagonize Russia, which holds a veto in the Security Council, where it has thus far opposed any sanctions.
What splendid timing!
But, on the other hand, Russia-bashing is always a big hit with President Bush's conservative base at home, which could use considerable shoring up. Bush's approval ratings are currently hovering at around 32 percent, and Cheney's numbers are even lower.
Sending Cheney to Vilnius as a champion of human rights and civil liberties can only be seen as a caricature. It is yet another demonstration of the Bush Administration's contempt for "old Europe" and its essentially unchanged unilateralism.
Well, Europe may be old, but it's not stupid.