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Quote of the day:Michael O’Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution, said the discretionary funds readily available to fill any financing gap could be exhausted by February or March. ‘The military doesn’t want to feel like it’s living week to week, hand to mouth at the Congress’s mercy,’ he said.” (Eric Schmitt, Service Chiefs Challenge White House on the Budget, the New York Times)

Now there’s a fascinating bit of mainstream expertise on offer, but a little background is useful. The President’s break-the-bank budget turns out, unsurprisingly, to be missing the odd dotted i and crossed t. In particular, the next request for funds for waging war and occupying Iraq, estimated at $50 billion, has not been included in this year’s budget. Like the previous two times around ($62.6 billion last spring and $87 billion in November), it will be submitted as a supplemental request in January. Think post-the November election — perhaps on the theory that out-of-sight is out of mind, as opposed to out of one’s mind.

But here’s the rub — only the first of many conundrums this administration faces in regards to its Iraq policy — the military in Iraq (and assumedly Afghanistan, where another American soldier died and a number were wounded yesterday) is only funded through September. Between September and January, the military will have to scrabble for Iraq funds to the tune of about $4 billion a month, which is almost but not quite chump change for the Pentagon. And — horror of horrors — as Brookings expert Hanlon put it to Eric Schmitt of the Times, the Pentagon fears being left out on the street, another Bush-era indigent, and worst of all (doesn’t this little phrase speak a world about our world) “at the mercy of Congress.” I may be no constitutional scholar, but wasn’t that the point back when we weren’t yet a full-scale military empire?

I suspect none of us are likely to live long enough to see the Pentagon out in the street playing the odd bit of martial music, hat in hand. Still, this little “crisis” in which the service chiefs actually went to Capitol Hill and complained before Congress, gives a sense of the baggage, reaching near mountainous proportions, that the Bush administration is dragging into this election year. The invasion/occupation of Iraq, which our secretary of defense assured us before the war wouldn’t cost more than $50 billion in toto, now is going to cost us that much next year — and that’s if things go half well — and like some embarrassing in-law, those costs, never part of the bargain that the neocons made with themselves, now have to be hidden in plain sight.

Iraqi knots and conundrums

Let me try to untie a few Iraqi knots, or at least loosen them a bit, and consider as best I can where we are right now. Remember — it was hardly more than half a year ago — when the Pentagon left the State Department out in the cold? Remember when its top civilian officials wanted every pathway in Iraq to lead back to the famed five-sided building and nowhere else? Well, how a few months can change matters.

According to Joseph Galloway, part of a Knight-Ridder team of journalists that’s done some of the most revealing inside-the-Beltway reportage on the Iraqi crisis, the Pentagon’s top brass has had it with its war in Iraq. Galloway writes:

“Rumsfeld and his key aides, meanwhile, are running for cover. In one recent high-level meeting, Rumsfeld looked at Secretary of State Colin Powell and said, ‘Jerry (Ambassador Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq) works for you, right?’ Powell looked as if he’d been struck by lightning. Bremer and every other U.S. official in Iraq reports directly to Rumsfeld and the Pentagon

“When [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was asked a tough question about the controversies surrounding the U.S. contracting efforts in Iraq, he turned to [Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage and said: ‘You can answer that one, right, Rich?’ Armitage answered by noting that the Department of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of Defense control every American contract let in Iraq…

“‘Iraq is now a contaminated environment and Rumsfeld and his people want out,’ said one senior administration official. ‘They can’t wait for July 1 when the CPA (Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority) turns into the U.S. Embassy and the whole mess they have made becomes Colin Powell’s.'”

But there’s the rub, isn’t it: First, they have to make it to July 1 in a country CIA agents in Baghdad now fear is on a “glide path to civil war”; and secondly, they have to wonder whether, as looks possible, that steadfast July 1 date is going to be like one of these little puddles on a bone-dry highway — an ever-receding mirage.

But let’s take this one step — or knot — at a time, starting with the low-level guerrilla war or insurgency that’s mainly but not completely limited to the country’s Sunni heartland. Talk about asymmetrical warfare! The weapon of choice for the insurgents has been the IED — improvised explosive device — which can, for instance, be a fire-extinguisher container filled with explosives buried at the side of the road and set off remotely by a garage-door opener. What a bizarre combination of high and low-tech — and in a country littered with munitions, an unbelievably cheap way to go. Combine that with the more formal weapon of choice, the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), and you can destroy a Humvee or Bradley Fighting Vehicle or knock a helicopter out of the sky at a few bucks a pop. This is certainly the definition of low-level insurgency. Toss in some Iraqi spies somewhere in CPA operations and foreign jihadis ready to give up their lives behind the wheel of a car, and you have a constant level of danger without having a massive national liberation struggle to go with it.

I was planning to write today that, compared to Vietnam, there had been no platoon-sized assaults by the insurgents, but as it happens this just took place. A sizeable band of insurgents (some evidently with Lebanese passports) staged coordinated attacks on several police stations, a security compound, and a civil defense base in Fallujah. (At one of these, only the other day, a convoy ferrying America’s top commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, came under fire.) More than 20 policemen were killed and many prisoners (most of whom may have been criminals rather than insurgents) freed. This is a small but striking escalation of a low-level insurgency.

American casualties have remained relatively constant, perhaps one dead and several wounded a day. The number of wounded remains in question. Jonathan Miller of Britain’s Channel 4 reported recently on a situation in which “the true extent of US casualties in Iraq is still unknown. This has fuelled suspicion that the administration may be hiding the true human cost of the war and its aftermath. Channel Four News has been allowed a rare opportunity to meet some of America’s wounded soldiers.”

His piece begins:

“In a dark corner of Andrews Air Force base on the outskirts of Washington DC, America’s war-wounded come home. The human cost of humbling tyrants. No ceremony, no big welcome. More than 11,000 medical evacuees have come through Andrews in the past nine months, the Air Force says. Most, we suspect, from Iraq. But that’s 8,000 more than the Pentagon says have been wounded there

“But when it comes to the wounded, an astonishing situation has arisen: the Pentagon’s figures clash wildly with those of the US Army. The Pentagon lists 2,604 wounded in action and just 408 ‘non-hostile wounded’. But the Army says many thousands more have been medically evacuated from the conflict zone.”

And then, of course, there’s the issue of Iraqi casualties, which, when a figure is given at all, are now regularly put at 10,000. This is the “maximum” figure given by a very conscientious on-line group, Iraq Body Count, which has been heroically tracking media reports of Iraqi casualties since the war began. Ten thousand is a staggering enough number, but these figures are surely low. It takes no imagination at all to realize that for every casualty that makes it into a reputable news account, there must be others that pass unnoticed by the media. The Iraqi dead — from military conscripts to assassinated Baathist officials, to families in cars killed by trigger-nervous American soldiers, to passers-by and the like assassinated by suicide bombers — lie in the true unmarked graves of this ongoing catastrophe. The American military has studiously hewed to a policy of never counting the Iraqi dead.

In addition, the Iraqi resistance, such as it is, has recently turned fiercely on those seen as “collaborating” with the American occupation, from laundresses and translators to policemen and civil defense forces. Two massive suicide car bombs this week were carefully aimed (or at least as carefully as is possible with such indiscriminate weapons of destruction) at recruitment stations for the police and the new army, killing or wounding hundreds of Iraqis.

Despite the usual upbeat statements by the administration and CPA spokespeople, the British Financial Times reports (Nicolas Pelham, Secret report warns of Iraq ‘Balkanisation’):

“A confidential report prepared by the US-led administration in Iraq says that the attacks by insurgents in the country have escalated sharply, prompting fears of what it terms Iraq’s ‘Balkanisation’

“‘January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003,’ the report said. ‘The violence continues despite the expansion of the Iraqi security services and increased arrests by coalition forces in December and January.’

“According to the report, ‘January national review of Iraq’, strikes against international and non-governmental organisations increased from 19 to 26 in January. It said that high-intensity attacks involving mortars and explosives grew by 103 per cent from 316 in December to 642 in January; non-life threatening attacks, including drive-by shootings and rock-throwing, soared by 186 per cent from 182 in December. It also recorded an average of eight attacks a day in Baghdad alone, up from four a day in September, and a total of 11 attacks on coalition aircraft It described the ‘profuse availability’ of roadside bombs, the favoured weapon of the insurgents, as ‘alarming’, saying attacks had surged almost 200 per cent.”

The most striking aspect of all this is how little is known about who exactly the insurgents are, whom our troops are actually facing. Every suicide bombing is now labeled “al Qaeda,” which is meaningless under these circumstances, and the attacks on civilian “collaborators” are often dealt with here as if they were simply some cowardly blow at the soft underbelly of the occupation. But such “soft” targets are naturally what insurgents go after. As Tariq Ali wrote in the Guardian today (The bloody price of occupation):

“And how better to facilitate this than by dredging up the bogey of the Wahhabite al-Qaida? The US may have sought to blame it for this week’s car bomb attacks. But this ignores the fact that ‘if you collaborate, then be prepared to pay the price’ has been the message of virtually every national struggle over the last century.

“In Vichy France and occupied Yugoslavia and later in Vietnam, Algeria, Guinea and Angola, collaborators were regularly targeted. Then, as in Iraq today, the resistance was denounced by politicians and the tame press as ‘terrorists’. When the occupying armies withdrew and the violence ceased, many of the ‘terrorists’ became ‘statesmen’.”

Christian Parenti, met some of the Iraqi insurgents recently and wrote about them in Two Sides, Scenes from a nasty, brutish & long war in the latest issue of the Nation magazine. He says that the fighters he ran into seemed to be less part of a movement “than a collection of shamed and angry men with access to military training, weapons and targets.” He concludes, however, that the low-level but bloody insurgency has already “settled into a lopsided and contradiction-fraught stalemate” that won’t go away any time soon.

For Iraqis, in certain areas, as Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times reports, working with the occupation, even when it’s simply a matter of keeping one’s economic head above water, has become a deadly gamble (Strikes at ‘Collaborators’ Sow Fear but Not Flight):

“In the weeks and months after the U.S.-led invasion began in late March, insurgents picked off Iraqi police, mayors, an Iraqi Governing Council member and oil and electrical workers. But the number and brutality of the attacks seem to be accelerating. Since the beginning of February, more than 200 civilians have been killed

“Two Armenian Christian translators for the Americans recently quit their jobs after receiving threats, [a translator’s] father said. They were lucky. Local papers have reported at least five translators killed in the last three weeks. The coalition has declined to confirm that number.”

This may be the most literal example of the insurgency’s attempt to cut ties between the occupation and the rest of Iraq — after all, without communication, there is, in essence, no occupation. As Rubin’s carefully shaded report reveals, many Iraqis now find themselves trapped between an unpopular occupation that looks increasingly hapless and a brutal resistance. Even simple everyday security remains at critical levels in many parts of the country including the capital. Check out, for instance, the girl blogger of Baghdad’s vivid account of how one of her cousin’s was kidnapped on his way home by car one recent night and held for a $15,000 reward.

So neocon Washington, which expected a “cakewalk” in Iraq after a cakewalk in Afghanistan, now finds itself knotted into what increasingly seems like a series of inchoate occupations of Islamic lands, as Pepe Escobar puts the matter in the Asia Times, with only a modest degree of exaggeration. (Why al Qaeda votes Bush):

“Al-Qaeda may have given the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration the perfect motive for bombing Afghanistan and then invading Iraq. But even seriously disabled, al-Qaeda benefits enormously, although not directly. The fact is that the US military machine now rules over more than 50 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. Untold numbers are turning to a myriad Islamist radicals groups and sub-groups all over the Muslim world — which they identify as the only force, although incoherent, capable of at least facing and demoralizing bit by bit the American empire.”

It’s like watching Osama bin Laden’s dystopian dream come true in hideous slo-mo — and I haven’t even touched on the tangled matter of turning over “sovereignty” in Iraq.

The turn-over

While in the Sunni areas of Iraq, a low-level insurgency is aimed at thwarting the turning over of “sovereignty” to American-chosen Iraqis, to the south, in largely Shia Iraq, a push has been on to thwart that turnover in quite a different way. In recent weeks, the revered Ayatollah Sistani, pushing hard for quick democratic elections that would bring some kind of Shiite majority government to power, has driven the Americans to the point of abandoning projects and plans the insurgents to the north could only dream about (though without them, Sistani’s power would surely be much reduced). He’s forced the Bush administration to return to the hated United Nations and plead for help; he’s gotten the Americans to all but formally abandon their scheme for creating a rump, pro-American “democratic” regime by July via exceedingly undemocratic caucuses (for more on this administration’s idea of how to “privatize democracy,” check out Naomi Klein’s latest, Hold Bush to His Lie); he’s gotten Secretary of State Colin Powell to admit that even the often-announced date of July 1 for the handing over of sovereignty might not prove hard and fast (“Secretary of State Colin L. Powell signaled Wednesday that the administration might delay plans to return sovereignty to Iraqis by June 30, telling a congressional oversight panel that violence continued to vex U.S. and Iraqi officials.”); and he’s gotten a UN team, headed by envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, to travel to Iraq and meet with him on the matter of elections. All of this has happened without his ever meeting with an American official or leaving his own modest abode. The administration has fallen back from each of its “barricades,” when faced with the Ayatollah’s pronouncements, each time claiming itself at a final destination had been reached — before falling back again.

Late this week, Brahimi announced his support for elections rather than caucuses, but also claimed that they couldn’t be organized before the June 30th turnover date. And here we reach another knot for the administration. They remain eager to hew to the June 30th turnover date, and so are suggesting as a possible fallback position that the present Governing Council in Baghdad simply be much enlarged and given “power.” It would then be delegated, possibly with UN help, to organize “quick” elections.

Edmund Sanders and Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times report, however (Options for Iraq Trouble Envoy):

“With neither the U.S. nor the Shiite proposal likely to win U.N. endorsement, it seems increasingly clear that the parties will need to choose another plan to bridge the gap. Many Iraqis had been counting on the U.N. to find a compromise to break the deadlock, but Brahimi gave no indication that it would However, it is unclear whether Iraqis will support an expanded Governing Council. There has been broad skepticism about the largely advisory body’s legitimacy and effectiveness, and an expanded council may face the same criticisms.

“Another plan would ask the U.N. to supervise the government until elections could be held, though it remained doubtful whether the U.N. would accept such a role because of the security situation Despite a visit that included a rare 2½-hour meeting with the reclusive Sistani, the U.N. team was unable to reach a consensus on how to govern the country between the planned June 30 hand-over and full elections.”

The UN has already had one horrific experience in Iraq and its key officials are not eager for another; and let’s remember that the institution itself is, for many Iraqis, associated not with neutrality but with the decade-long enforcement of devastating sanctions against the country.

In his most recent comment on the situation, Sistani has suggested, according to Ghassan R. al-Atiyyah, executive director of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development, that “he is flexible on the dates for general elections, though they should be before the American elections [in November]. And any position on elections should be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.” (Like the insurgents to the north, the moderate as well as conservative Ayatollah knows his key global dates — and like them, he probably watches CNN.)

So in a country where a Sunni insurgency is pulling in one direction, a Shiite democracy movement in another, the U.N. in a third, and the U.S. in possibly a couple of more, we have a series of knots that no one yet seems able to untie. Any solution viable or attractive to one group is likely to displease at least some or all of the others.

To leave but not to leave — how is the question

To add to this puzzle inside an enigma inside a conundrum of a situation, the Pentagon’s leadership wants to wipe its hands clean of its Iraqi mess; our overstretched military wants out; the Bush administration would like to leave behind the quagmire of Iraq (with its associated lies, scandals, absurd “intelligence,” and missing weaponry) ASAP; and many Iraqis want the American occupation ended (but fear our departure at this point).

All the while the mess only deepens — the insoluble problem for the Bush administration being that it wants to leave Iraq without departing.

While you can find discussions in our mainstream media about how many years American troops may “have” to stay in Iraq, with suitable quotes from military figures speaking of sizeable forces still in place in 2005 or 2006, the focus has largely been on the issue of how to turn over “sovereignty” this year and not on where, if this administration has its way, real power is likely to reside after sovereignty is officially returned.

Again, let’s try to look at the situation in a reasonably clear-eyed way. It was always true that Bush strategists planned to settle into Iraq for the long haul to remake the Middle East, and those plans seem not to have changed. As soon as sovereignty is finally turned over (to whomever), for instance, the administration has made it clear that it will promptly create the largest “embassy” in the world (with a “staff” of over 3,000); in essence but another version of Baghdad’s present “Green Zone.” Real power will remain there, of course, backed by our continuing military presence in the country.

In an exceedingly heavily armed region, Iraq now lacks an army which was officially demobilized by L. Paul Bremer soon after the war. The new army now being only haltingly trained is to be a small, lightly-armed, border-patrolling force that will lack heavy weaponry and an air force. So it’s obvious who will be doing the real protecting into the foreseeable future. Since the end of the war — though it is never written about here — we have been building a series of permanent bases in the country, which is really all you need to know (but nobody in the United States does).

Recently, David Isenberg at Asia Times on-line, informed us that these permanent bases are referred to charmingly as “enduring camps” (The costs of empire):

“In Iraq engineers from the 1st Armored Division are midway through an $800 million project to build half a dozen camps for the incoming 1st Cavalry Division. The new outposts, dubbed enduring camps, will improve living quarters for soldiers and allow the military to return key infrastructure sites within the Iraqi capital to the emerging government…

“The largest of the new camps, Camp Victory North, will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo – currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.”

Combine these “enduring camps” with the “status of forces agreements” (SOFAs) now being negotiated (though who has the power to negotiate in non-sovereign Iraq is another matter). These will give American soldiers free run of the country without subjecting them to future local judicial restraints. Finally, CPA head Bremer has been installing a Halliburton economy in Iraq, sweepingly opening the country to foreign companies and investment in a series of steps that go beyond anything an occupation administration should legally be capable of doing. For those of you who want to understand the essence of such “privatization” policies (at home as in Iraq), don’t miss “Contract Sport,” Jane Mayer’s history of Halliburton and our vice president, in the New Yorker (included below). Just a single choice quote here:

“The Vice-President has not been connected directly to any of Halliburton’s current legal problems Yet, in a broader sense, Cheney does bear some responsibility. He has been both an architect and a beneficiary of the increasingly close relationship between the Department of Defense and an elite group of private military contractors-a relationship that has allowed companies such as Halliburton to profit enormously. As a government official and as Halliburton’s C.E.O., he has long argued that the commercial marketplace can provide better and cheaper services than a government bureaucracy. He has also been an advocate of limiting government regulation of the private sector. His vision has been fully realized: in 2002, more than a hundred and fifty billion dollars of public money was transferred from the Pentagon to private contractors.”

Now, we’re offering Iraqis the same opportunity.

So we want to get out of the way of the insurgents and the insistent shia clerics without giving up the reins of military, political, or economic power in strategically central Iraq. Unfortunately, it’s not clear who to negotiate those SOFAs with, nor is it clear, once there is a sovereign government in place, that any of the deals made by the CPA either in the Green Zone or inside the Beltway will hold up and this has made foreign investors nervous indeed.

Much of this, of course, would simply be material for Comedy Central, if it weren’t for the fact that so many people are being and will continue to be hurt in the process.

The Polish solution

Consider this a little Comedy Central digression to make the point. A former student of mine, Brandon Sprague, who covered Iraqi exiles in the U.S. before the war and was a freelancer in Baghdad last summer, offers the following notes on one aspect of Bremer’s planned economic “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq and the model he had in mind. He writes Tomdispatch:

“Not only does Poland have the distinction of being America’s most eager-to-please ally in Iraq, but now the former Soviet-bloc country is apparently being used as a model for the new Iraqi economy. This may be why Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer appointed former Polish finance minister Marek Belka to be his new director of economic policy in Iraq. Belka took over the post in November 2003.

“A U.S.-trained economist, he had left his finance ministry post in 2002 after failing both to stimulate Poland’s floundering growth rate and to stem soaring unemployment. He blamed his boss, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller who turned down his austerity proposal to reduce the deficit. ‘If Belka finds that the government doesn’t want to realize his economic strategy, he won’t wait 10 minutes to resign,’ he told a Polish paper.

“In the 1990s Poland had emerged from its post-Soviet transition with a booming economy. But after the Russian ruble crashed in 1998, Poland’s ‘tiger’ economy began to flag. When Belka took office as finance minister in 2001, he proposed deep cuts in spending including teachers’ salary increases and social security obligations to businesses. He left his post at a time when growth had slowed to 1 percent and unemployment had reached 18 percent, the highest rate since 1990, the year market transition began in Poland. Critics likened Belka’s departure to a captain fleeing a sinking ship. While some of Belka’s policies led to protests in Warsaw, a similar ‘Belka Plan’ in Iraq promised dire socio-political consequences in a country already suffering from war and occupation.

“At a conference in Baghdad little more than a year later, Belka revealed a radical free-market strategy, patterned on his Polish experiences, for jump-starting the Iraqi economy. The strategy included the following:

*The immediate privatization of state owned enterprises. “Iraq is a case where we have to be forceful in advocating privatization,” he said.

*The elimination government subsidies involving food rations, gasoline, and electricity.

*The creation of a very moderate corporate tax system.

“The Iraqis at the conference could not have disagreed more, saying such measures would create more unemployment (in a country that already had a 50-60 percent unemployment rate) and surging inflation. Last month, after economic reform plans were put on hold due to unrest, Belka seemed finally to agree that radical liberalization and privatization were too controversial. ‘We have to remember that in Iraq the social costs of reforms are counted in additional deaths, not more strikes,” he told Reuters. In other words, Iraq is no Poland.'”

Imagine hiring a former Polish minister to run the economy of a country he knows nothing about. There couldn’t have been an Iraqi in sight. It sums up much of the madness of the Bush approach to Iraq. If there’s a Bush second term, perhaps Belka will be appointed to a position in Washington. After all, Iraq’s already helping bleed us dry to the tune of many billions of dollars a month. Soon perhaps we’ll be ready for the Polish model. Treasury secretary might make sense for him. Then at least, the kiss-and-tell book to follow will be in Polish.

By now, there are so many loose threads hanging out of our Iraq policy that it must be a great temptation in Washington just to pull on a few of them, as this administration will indeed have to do sooner or later — but who knows whether the result will be a vast unraveling or a further knotting. Caveat emptor.

Note: This week’s most underreported story — the one that made me most curious — was OPEC’s cutting of future oil output by a startling 10%. Despite the fact that the Bush administration reacted instantaneously and with anxiety to the development — they are, after all, an oil administration — this was dealt with as either a minor technical story suitable for the inside pages or, as at the New York Times, as a business-section story that had little or nothing to do with global politics (Simon Romero, Plans Million-Barrel Cut in Output).

Oil — call it “energy,” if oil brings to mind one-dimensional “Marxist” critics and makes you nervous — has been the great underreported subject of this administration. Halliburton is finally getting attention, but largely for various cost-overruns and overcharges in Iraq, not because it’s an energy-related company formerly run by our vice president who also led the secret charge on energy policy in the new administration. It stands in for Iraq policy, not this administration’s global energy policy (which we all know had nothing whatsoever in any way to do with our invasion of Iraq, a matter that no sane person could possibly argue about — especially now that it’s proven so hard to get the stuff out of the ground).

So the OPEC cut was dealt with purely in terms of a world of oil producers and oil prices. It’s not something I know much about, but if the thought crossed my mind — and if the administration reacted so quickly — isn’t there a faint possibility that this was meant as more than a parochial pricing or production matter? Could this not have been a warning shot across the bow of the Bush administration at just the moment when it was struggling elsewhere? You tell me. Wouldn’t this be a moment, in any case, when you would have as many reporters swarming over energy policy as over Bush’s war record?

Next dispatch: “The Bush Follies” Tom

Contract Sport
By Jane Mayer
The New Yorker
February 16 and 23

Vice-President Dick Cheney is well known for his discretion, but his official White House biography, as posted on his Web site, may exceed even his own stringent standards. It traces the sixty-three years from his birth, in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1941, through college and graduate school, and describes his increasingly powerful jobs in Washington. Yet one chapter of Cheney’s life is missing

To read more of Mayer click here