Former Vice President Dick Cheney is back on the national news scene, wearing a white cowboy hat and calling the president a traitor.

He used a few weasel words, but we know what he was implying. His daughter, Liz, filled in the blanks. Cheney said the president “seems determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch.”

Actually, he said quite a bit more than that. The liberals are, of course, outraged, pointing out that Cheney, more than any other human being on earth, is responsible for us getting into Iraq in the first place.

But that’s not what struck me. There are all sorts of right-wingers around demanding that we go to war someplace.

What struck me was the cowboy hat and the firm jut of Cheney’s jaw. He sees himself as the tough realist who is willing to do what it takes to get whatever job done he thinks is worth doing – and hang the hand-wringers who get in his way.

He kind of reminds me of Vladimir Putin, who likes to go around wrestling tigers, riding horses bareback and invading neighboring countries. Or, for that matter, Italy’s former prime minister Benito Mussolini.

Throughout history, there is a strain of political leader who assumes what their nations need is a strong man who will take charge, weed out the sissies and get done what needs to be done.

In the 20th century, we had Hitler, Stalin and Mao. These were truly terrifying personages who cost the world millions of lives, destroyed civilizations and undermined the future of their societies.

And, then, history also is replete with their imitators, semi-comical strongmen who led their countries to disaster but who didn’t have the inner capacity for pure evil.

Karl Marx put it well in 1851 when he contrasted the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled France from 1801 to 1814, and his nephew King Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power in mid-century and botched it.

History, Marx said, repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Putin has been quoted as saying the loss of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy for Russia and for civilization. No it wasn’t. The Soviet Union turned everything in its path to misery and squandered the wealth of much of Europe in a militaristic adventure doomed to failure.

Cheney seems to long for the day – a decade ago – when America was the world’s only superpower and could do whatever its leaders wanted to do. The problem is, that day never existed. As it turned out, we had all the bombers, missiles, tanks and computers. Our enemies had improvised explosive devices.

Cheney isn’t a Hitler, isn’t a Stalin, isn’t even a Mussolini. My problem with the guy in the cowboy hat is that, should we take him seriously, we might be setting the stage for someone who is.