Get ready for President Cheney

Liz Cheney could one day become the first female US President. But she is even more right-wing than

I once had dinner at the British embassy with Dick Cheney, when he was next-door neighbour to the diplomatic mission, living in the vice-president's mansion. It was just days after his latest heart attack, but I couldn't help noticing how eagerly he was chomping down the chocolate mousse. The veteran draft-dodger and warmonger had already given up plans to run for the presidency himself, I thought to myself. I slept soundly that night.

But this month, I have been having nightmares again. Yes, I can foresee a Cheney presidency, after all. Not, I should say immediately, with the 69-year-old has-been returning to occupy the White House. He is too busy breaking the civilised American tradition of presidents and vice-presidents not criticising their successors, frantically warning us all that Barack Obama is a wimp whose policies will lead to a terrorist Armageddon. (Actually, Obama's security policies are remarkably similar to those of George W Bush and Cheney, but we will come to that later.)

Creepy ad

We can relax a while, because I don't envisage this Cheney presidency until, say, after the 2016 elections at the earliest. Step forward, then, President-Elect Liz Cheney, the old fool's elder daughter - a bright, articulate and presentable woman with oodles of experience in government. Given that Hillary Clinton has just missed the boat, Cheney would probably be the first female US president in history. But (and sit down before you read this, please) she is probably even more right-wing, and even more of a warmonger, than the dad to whom she is so devoted.

This month, indeed, she has truly come into her own. To many, she was merely the bene­iciary of nepotism, a lawyer given the post of deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, who then gave up work to become a soccer mom, shuttling around her five children. Last October, however, she co-founded the Keep America Safe organisation, which finally came into its own with the release on 3 March of a creepy advert criticising the Obama administration's refusal to name seven of nine government lawyers who - God forbid! - have acted, or will act, for the defence in the trials of Guantanamo prisoners.

It doesn't matter that exactly this system was put into place by the Bush-Cheney administration, that some of the government lawyers worked for the Bush administration, too, nor even that 34 of America's top 50 law firms (plus a 450-strong firm called Bracewell & Giuliani - yes, that Giuliani) have also been defending Guantanamo prisoners.

The sudden seizing of the issue to stoke up resentment gave Ms Cheney and her organisation - perhaps Keep America Scared would be
a more apt name? - a chance to throw truth out of the window and depict Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder (who's black: that helps), standing in front of a backdrop that renames the department of justice he runs with Obama the "department of jihad". Frightening stuff.

America is perilously close to the return of 21st-century McCarthyism. Even far-right legal zealots such as Inspector Ken Starr (who will be known for ever as the man who brought before the world a stained dress belonging to Monica Lewinsky) and Bush's solicitor general Ted Olson (whose wife was killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks) have said that the Cheney notion is antithetical to any remotely fair judicial system. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and military lawyer for 30 years, agrees.

Yet the truth is that Ms Cheney has struck an American nerve in just the way her father and Bush managed to do. Polls now show that most Americans want Guantanamo prisoners to be put before military tribunals rather than civilian courts (even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the prisoners were entitled to the protection of the US constitution). Other polls show that a majority of Americans still support waterboarding and want Guantanamo to be kept open.

So that 48-second ad, alas, really marks the triumphant durability of Cheneyism. In six or ten years' time the ad will be long forgotten and Liz Cheney, now still only 43, will no longer be a soccer mom: what could be more natural than a run for the White House? Republicans might even find themselves choosing between the dotty populism of Sarah Palin and the McCarthyite hatred of Liz Cheney.

False messiahs

Much of the blame, I'm afraid, lies on the shoulders of Barack Obama. Yet again he has shown weak leadership on this, as on other issues. The day after taking office, he jubilantly signed an order to close Guantanamo prison camps by the end of 2009. Yet it never happened and about 200 prisoners are still held there, with neither Obama nor anybody else having a clue what to do with them.

Yet it was certainly a campaign pledge that went down well back in those heady days of Obamamania in 2008, wasn't it? The brand-new President Obama also announced that he was carrying out another electoral promise by halting all military tribunals and, in effect, abolishing the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act 2006.

Within five months, however, we learned that Obama was considering the reintroduction of military tribunals. Those being tried won't be told all the evidence against them, won't be able to choose their own defence lawyer; even total acquittal may still lead to permanent incarceration. That's the America a false messiah such as Obama has brought us, and it neatly opens the way for a McCarthyite backlash.

President Cheney: the very thought makes you shudder.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.