Dick Cheney and the Art of Op-Ed Trolling

The former vice-president’s new op-ed about Iraq is just the latest in a line of spectacularly confounding opinion pieces.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney talks about his wife Lynne Cheney's book 'James Madison: A Life Reconsidered' May 12, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
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Matt Berman
June 18, 2014, 5:26 a.m.

Dick Cheney is try­ing to break your brain.

In a new op-ed in The Wall Street Journ­al, cowrit­ten with his daugh­ter Liz, the former vice-pres­id­ent gives Pres­id­ent Obama a ma­jor scold­ing on Ir­aq. Obama, the Cheneys write, made a grave mis­take in not step­ping up to IS­IS earli­er. Put in Cheneyese, “Ir­aq is at risk of fall­ing to a rad­ic­al Is­lam­ic ter­ror group and Mr. Obama is talk­ing cli­mate change.” Amer­ica’s en­emies, they write, “are em­boldened and on the march.” Obama “aban­doned Ir­aq and we are watch­ing Amer­ic­an de­feat snatched from the jaws of vic­tory.” 

And without a hint of self-aware­ness: “Rarely has a U.S. pres­id­ent been so wrong about so much at the ex­pense of so many.” [In­sert com­ment on the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion be­ing wrong on weapons of mass de­struc­tion, wrong on Sad­dam Hus­sein’s ties to 9/11, wrong on just how hard demo­cracy-build­ing in Ir­aq would be.]

There’s ob­vi­ously a lot to say when you’re talk­ing about an op-ed writ­ten by a guy who helped over­see an Ir­aq War that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans think was a mis­take now act­ing as the voice of wis­dom and reas­on. And there’s a lot to be frus­trated by when that op-ed doesn’t really ad­dress the lar­ger cir­cum­stances that have led Ir­aq to its cur­rent crisis, out­side of sug­gest­ing that al-Qaida in Ir­aq had been “largely de­feated” by the end of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. The piece doesn’t even men­tion the name of Obama’s White House pre­de­cessor.

As the Bush-era poli­cy­makers be­hind the Ir­aq War come out to air their opin­ions about the cur­rent crisis in the coun­try, many crit­ics have sug­ges­ted we just ig­nore them. Why’s that? You may re­mem­ber that when Dick Cheney left of­fice in 2009, his ap­prov­al rat­ing was at 13 per­cent. At that same time, just 25 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­proved of how the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion handled the war in Ir­aq dur­ing his pres­id­ency. Cheney may not know it, but this isn’t a par­tic­u­larly trus­ted for­eign policy brain trust we’re talk­ing about. 

But when you push the policy pre­scrip­tions and the polit­ic­al fin­ger-wag­ging out of your head, you’re still left with at least one thing: Dick Cheney really knows how to get un­der people’s skin with a thou­sand words of colum­nized text. And if you look around the re­cent ma­jor op-ed land­scape, you’ll see he’s not alone.

The busi­ness of news­pa­per op-ed trolling is boom­ing. Like, boom­ing so sig­ni­fic­antly that it seemed that half of on­line me­dia spent a full week earli­er this month try­ing to fig­ure out why, ex­actly, Maur­een Dowd ate so much pot

And it’s easy to fig­ure out why Dowd gets to write that in the pa­per of re­cord. Or why Dav­id Brooks wrote a sim­il­ar column earli­er this year about his pot ex­per­i­ences, and why the drug should be il­leg­al, without bring­ing in much in the way of facts. Or why Susan Pat­ton, aka “Prin­ceton Mom,” gets to write op-eds for The Wall Street Journ­al about how col­lege-aged wo­men need to get hus­band-hunt­ing, already.

The an­swer here is, at least in part, at­ten­tion. Here, check out where the Cheney op-ed stands as of 8:30 AM on Wed­nes­day morn­ing:

On the far right, you can see that the Cheney op-ed is the most pop­u­lar story on WSJ‘s site this morn­ing. This shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. The piece is per­fectly cal­ib­rated red meat for every­one. Con­ser­vat­ives can love it for its pure rage at the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Pro­gress­ives can love it, be­cause who doesn’t en­joy a good hate-read

As with the best of the trolly op-eds that have come be­fore it this year, there are already dozens of stor­ies on­line this morn­ing hash­ing out what the Cheneys wrote. There are sure to be dozens more. Which for The Wall Street Journ­al is just a traffic win. But the Cheneys get a big piece of that, too. Liz Cheney is just com­ing off a very failed Sen­ate bid. Dick Cheney has spent the last few years watch­ing his party’s for­eign policy ideo­logy, and Amer­ic­an pop­u­lar opin­ion, drift away from neo­con­ser­vat­ism and to­ward Rand Paul and anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ism.

The Cheneys likely, and reas­on­ably, can feel their already-tenu­ous hold on the Re­pub­lic­an Party slip­ping. What bet­ter way to re­in­tro­duce your­self than with a column that em­boldens your re­main­ing al­lies and in­flames your polit­ic­al ad­versar­ies to the point where they’re ac­tu­ally talk­ing about you again?

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