THE INDICTMENT of the vice president's chief of staff for perjury and obstruction of justice is an occasion to consider just how damaging the long public career of Richard Cheney has been to the United States. He began as a political scientist devoted to caring for the elbow of Donald Rumsfeld. As a congressman, Rumsfeld had reliably voted against programs to help the nation's poor, so (as I recalled in reading James Mann's ''Rise of the Vulcans") it was with more than usual cynicism that Richard Nixon appointed him head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the antipoverty agency. Rumsfeld named Cheney as his deputy, and the two set out to gut the program-- the beginning of the Republican rollback of the Great Society, what we saw in New Orleans this fall.
When Rumsfeld became Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff, he again tapped Cheney as his deputy. Now they set out to destroy detente, the fragile new relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dismissing detente as moral relativism, Cheney so believed in Cold War bipolarity that when it began to melt in the late 1980s, he tried to refreeze it. As George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense, Cheney was key to America's refusal to accommodate the hopeful new spirit of the age. Violence was in retreat, with peace breaking out across the globe, from the Philippines to South Africa, Ireland, the Middle East, and Central America. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Cheney forged America's response -- which was, little over a month later, to wage an illegal war against Panama.
As Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the nonviolent dismantling of the Soviet Union, Cheney warned Bush not to trust it. When the justification for the huge military machine over which Cheney presided disappeared, he leapt on the next casus belli -- Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Hussein, a former ally, was now Hitler.
Against Cheney's own uniformed advisers (notably including Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell), he forged Washington's choice of violence over diplomacy. The first Gulf War, remembered by Americans as justified, was in fact an unnecessary affirmation of military might as the ground of international order, just as an historic alternative was opening up. US responses in that period, mainly shaped by Cheney, stand in stark contrast to Gorbachev's, who, refusing to call on military might even to save the Soviet Union, was ordering his soldiers back to their barracks. The unsentimental Cheney, eschewing human rights rhetoric, was explicit in defining America's Gulf War interest as all about oil. (The oil industry having made Cheney rich.) Cheney's initiatives, more than any other's, defined the insult to the Arab world that spawned Al Qaeda.
With all of this as prelude, it seems as tragic as it was inevitable that Cheney was behind the wheel again when the next fork in the road appeared before the nation. When the World Trade Center towers were hit in New York, it was Cheney who told a shaken President Bush to flee. The true nature of their relationship (Cheney, not Bush, having shaped the national security team; Cheney, not Bush, having appointed himself as vice president) showed itself for a moment.
The 9/11 Commission found that, from the White House situation room, Cheney warned the president that a ''specific threat" had targeted Air Force One, prompting Bush to spend the day hiding in the bunker at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska. There was no specific threat. In Bush's absence, Cheney, implying an authorizing telephone call from the president, took command of the nation's response to the crisis. There was no authorizing telephone call. The 9/11 Commission declined to make an issue of Cheney's usurpation of powers, but the record shows it.
At world-shaping moments across a generation, Cheney reacted with an instinctive, This is war! He helped turn the War on Poverty into a war on the poor. He helped keep the Cold War going longer than it had to, and when it ended (because of initiatives taken by the other side), Cheney refused to believe it. To keep the US war machine up and running, he found a new justification just in time. With Gulf War I, Cheney ignited Osama bin Laden's burning purpose. Responding to 9/11, Cheney fulfilled bin Laden's purpose by joining him in the war-of-civilizations. Iraq, therefore (including the prewar deceit for which Scooter Libby takes the fall), is simply the last link in the chain of disaster which is the public career of Richard Cheney.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.