Dick Cheney: Defense Spending Doesn't Drive Debt Problem

Cheney says cutting the defense budget is dangerous.

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Few politicians evoke such strong reaction from the public as does former Vice President Dick Cheney. He is either praised or criticized for his convictions, and his recent memoir has predictably created controversy. cheneyIn My Time, written with his daughter Liz Cheney, covers Cheney's life and his almost 40 years in politics. He says his personal chronicle is honest and accurate and that critics won't find any apologies for policy decisions they may disagree with. Cheney, who served as George W. Bush's vice president, wants the memoir to help people better understand "what it is we did and why we did it." He recently spoke with U.S. News about his motivation for writing the book, his response to critics, and his view on how history will judge the Bush administration. Excerpts:

Is there any significance to the timing of your book?

Basically it's because I left office in January of 2009, signed a contract in the summer, and finished it a little bit delayed. I was in the hospital for a period of time; I had heart surgery. I [wanted] to get it done before the next election. But it's something I thought of off and on over the years. It represents 70 years of my life and it seemed like a good time to write it.

[See a photo gallery of Bush's legacy.]

Critics have described the memoir as being especially unapologetic. How do you respond to this?

Well, you know, the interesting thing about the people who want apologies is they don't want just any old apology, they usually have a policy ax to grind. And what they want you to do is to apologize for whatever it is they disagreed with and I don't operate that way.

Did you collaborate with any cabinet members about your recollection of events?

I had a lot of records left over over the years. I had three oral histories done on my time at the Defense Department. I had notes from prior administrations that I had worked in. I didn't keep a diary, but I had accumulated a lot of paper. We used that primarily as the basis on which to write the book. I did not consult with other members of the cabinet.

[Washington Whispers: Cheney Wanted Rumsfeld As Bush's VP]

How do you respond to criticism of your accounts of events?

Well, there are differences. I thought it was important to accurately and honestly portray those differences, not to fizz them up. So you know, none of it is personal. It's intended to be a clear statement of what I believed and why I did what I did. And some people will like it and some won't. But that's the nature of the business.

You were outspoken about President Obama's positions on national security. What is your assessment now?

Well, I think he started out very shaky. And the thing that bothered me most is when they first took over they talked about prosecuting the people in the intelligence community who had carried out our counterterrorism policies—things like enhanced interrogation, for example. I thought that was a terrible precedent. They were going to close Guantánamo [Bay detention camp]; of course Guantánamo is still open. So there have been some things where they campaigned hard against what we'd been doing. But once they got into office I think they discovered that some of those policies were sound and needed to be continued. I think they did well when they captured and killed Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, all of the talk on cutting the defense budget is potentially very damaging to national security.

[See photos of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.]

Are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributing to the deficit problem?

No, the debt problem that we've got is driven much more by entitlement programs than it is by defense spending. Now, you can occasionally find that savings in the defense budget, but it's not going to be the kind of savings that are going to let you deal with a long-term debt problem.

Do you stand by the Bush administration's decision to lower taxes and ask Americans to shop in response to 9/11?

I do. It was very important to get the economy going again. The stock market was closed for a week, the transportation system was shut down, tourism and so forth devastated. What we did is reduce rates for everybody who was paying income taxes. We cut the tax on capital gains and dividends. If we had run out then and raised taxes, I think it would have done serious damage to the economy.