The man who tells George Bush what to do was finally and fully on displayVice President Dick Cheney's speech of last Friday was a surreal affair. Broadcast on The News Hour, Cheney's talk resembled a party boss addressing a chamber of loyalists. Dutifully, the audience at the American Enterprise Institute applauded politely on cue while the vice president stood in front of an array of six American flags.

Cheney's presentation was many things. It was a painful howl of denial at skeptics who question the wisdom of the Iraq war. It was a shot at the buzzards who are circling above the White House.

Most of all, this was the voice of the real president. This was not the president of limited vocabulary and wooden performance. This was a passionate, articulate world leader. The man who tells George W. Bush what to do was finally and fully on display.

Cheney pumped up emotion for a war that is going badly. He reiterated that America has a right to launch a pre-emptive military strike, even as the drawbacks of that doctrine are painfully clear.

Cheney's striking omission was the question that an old-time conservative would raise: At what cost?

The breathtaking Bush Administration request for Iraq operations and rebuilding and the mounting body count are sobering. So is that fact that our Army is stretched perilously thin. The world's collective unwillingness to help America pay for the Iraq operation stems from President Bush's botched diplomacy as he prepared for war.

The implicit message of Cheney's diatribe was that those who question White House policies are disloyal. The vice president doesn't realize that we've moved well beyond that dark period of intimidation. The speech's greatest conceit was the implicit belief that a nation can plan the outcome of a war it launches. It's later than Cheney thinks.

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