Cheney Doesn't Care What You Think

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 20, 2008; 12:46 PM

It's never exactly been a secret that Vice President Cheney operates by his own rules and thinks he knows better than the American public. But yesterday, he made it official.

Talking to ABC News's Martha Raddatz, in the piano lounge of the Shangri-La resort and spa in Oman, Cheney said he isn't the least bit concerned that the public overwhelmingly opposes the war in Iraq. In fact, it makes him identify with Abraham Lincoln.

Here's the transcript and a video excerpt from the interview.

Raddatz: "Two-thirds of Americans say it's not worth fighting, and they're looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives."

Cheney: "So?"

Raddatz: "So -- you don't care what the American people think?"

Cheney: "No, I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. Think about what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had paid attention to polls, if they had had polls during the Civil War. He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there."

Cheney on Iran

Remember all those crazy conspiracy theories last week that Cheney's Middle East trip, coming hard on the heels of Adm. William Fallon's abrupt resignation, signified that the White House had some sort of plan in the works to attack Iran? (See my March 12 column, Are We Closer to War?)

Cheney didn't quite confirm those theories yesterday -- but he said he understood where they were coming from.

Raddatz: "Can you foresee any point where military action would be taken? I ask you this because when you come over here, people in the region start thinking you're over here to plan some sort of military action."

Cheney: "Well, I suppose that's because of my past history."

Raddatz: "Yes, it is. So what would you like to say about that, and Iran?"

Cheney: "Well, I think the important thing to keep in mind is the objective that we share with many of our friends in the region, and that is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be very destabilizing for the entire area."

As for Cheney's views on Fallon, talk about damning with faint praise:

Raddatz: "Did he still have the President's confidence when he resigned?"

Cheney: "He made the decision to resign, and he's explained it, as has Bob Gates. . . . "

Raddatz: "Were Admiral Fallon's comments helpful or hurtful?"

Cheney: "I'm not going to get into it. The Admiral had many years of distinguished service in the United States Navy, a number of American commands at very important posts around the world. I think he deserves our thanks for his service, and our best wishes now that he moves on to private life."

Conventional wisdom suggests that whatever military plans Bush and Cheney had in mind for Iran were dealt a death blow in December, after the nation's intelligence agencies publicly concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

But it's never been entirely clear whether Bush and Cheney really believed what they were being told -- or whether they felt the intelligence community was maliciously sabotaging them. Raddatz tried to get at this issue yesterday, but Cheney avoided a direct answer:

Raddatz: "Do you believe the National Intelligence Estimate, that says they shut down their nuclear program or intentions five years ago?"

Cheney: "I think it's been -- it's important if you're going to look at the National International Estimate that we be precise in terms of what it says. And what it says is that they have definitely had in the past a program to develop a nuclear warhead; that it would appear that they stopped that weaponization process in 2003. We don't know whether or not they've restarted. . . . "

Raddatz: "But do you have high confidence they halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003?"

Cheney: "I have high confidence they have an ongoing enrichment program."

Raddatz: "But not high confidence they halted it?"

Cheney: "The enrichment program? They've never halted enrichment --"

Raddatz: "The nuclear weapons program."

Cheney: "Well, just go back and look at the National Intelligence Estimate."

Raddatz: "It says high confidence they halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003."

Cheney: "And high confidence that they had a nuclear weapons program."

Raddatz: "Right. But I'm specifically asking if you have high confidence, yourself, when you read that intelligence that that in fact happened in 2003?"

Cheney: "I think it's important, again, to be precise, in terms of what we're talking about."

Raddatz: "I'm trying to be precise."

The obvious conclusion: The intelligence finding didn't conform to his views, so he doesn't put much stock in it.

Not Exactly Brimming With Enthusiasm

Is Cheney happy that John McCain will be the Republican presidential nominee? There's still no evidence to that effect. Consider this exchange:

Raddatz: "Well, let's talk about this: You're supporting John McCain."

Cheney: "Correct."

Raddatz: "Would you campaign for John McCain?"

Cheney: "John will be, I think, the nominee of our party, and I'll do everything I can to help him."

Raddatz: "Do you think he'll want your help?"

Cheney: "I don't have any idea at this stage."

More Cheney Terseness

Raddatz: "Can I do one more quick question that I forgot? Yesterday great reception with the troops [at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq]. I know you talked to several of the troops there. We followed you in that rope line, and just asked people who they were supporting for President. Several said Barack Obama. I said, but he wants to get out of Iraq right away. And they said, that's okay with me. These are the troops that you addressed yesterday themselves."

Cheney: "What's the question?"

Raddatz: "Any reaction to that?"

Cheney: "No."

Gotta Give Him Credit

One thing about Cheney: He is seldom accused of being ineffective. And these days it seems he is bending people to his will in Baghdad, as well as in Washington.

Consider the matter of Iraq's provincial elections legislation, which was passed by the Iraqi parliament but then vetoed by Adel Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents.

"I talked with him about that," Cheney told Raddatz. "I find that the best way to be effective there is to keep it private, so that they feel they can confide in me, and I can confide in them, and we can have a conversation, and neither one of us goes out and talks about it in public."

Well lo and behold. Sholnn Freeman writes in today's Washington Post: "Iraq's three-member presidential council on Wednesday approved legislation that sets a time frame for provincial elections, a development that Iraqi lawmakers called an important step toward reconciling rival factions in the divided government. . . .

"The council passed the measure after [Mahdi] withdrew his opposition. Under the legislation, Iraq would hold provincial elections by Oct. 1."

Libby Disbarred

Carol D. Leonnig writes for The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, was disbarred today by a District of Columbia court that ruled that his convictions last year for perjury and obstructing justice in a White House leak investigation disqualify him from practicing law. . . .

"Libby was convicted of lying to the FBI and federal investigators about whether he discussed the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame with reporters in the spring and summer of 2003. At the time, according to evidence presented at trial, Cheney had instructed Libby to talk to reporters to rebut claims made by Plame's husband that the administration had twisted intelligence to justify going to war with Iraq.

"A three-member panel of the Court of Appeals decided that the D.C. Code gave it no choice on the decision. Libby has not disputed the D.C. Bar Counsel's recommendation that he be disbarred.

"'When a member of the Bar is convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, disbarment is mandatory,' the judges wrote. 'This court has held that obstruction of justice and perjury are crimes of moral turpitude per se.'. . . .

"Last July, a federal judge sentenced Libby to 30 months in jail.

President Bush commuted the sentence, calling it 'excessive.'"

Dream Interviews

If you're President Bush, what could be even easier than sitting down for an interview with a member of the White House press corps? How about sitting down for an interview with people who essentially work for you?

They're even more grateful, their questions are even more obsequious, and their follow-ups are even fewer and farther between.

Bush conducted three such interviews yesterday.

Master Sgt Erin Roberts spoke to Bush on behalf of the Pentagon Channel. (Here's the video.)

Roberts: "Sir, I want to thank you for this opportunity that you've given us to talk to you.... Today is the fifth-year anniversary of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. And my first question for you would be: As Commander-in-Chief, what are the areas you are most focused on, and most proud of, as U.S. forces and the Iraqi forces continue to work towards stability and security in Iraq?"

Tough one, huh?

Asked about his meeting with family members of those killed in battle, Bush responded: "I try to get them to talk about their loved one. I want to learn about each individual person who sacrificed, what they were like, what their interests were, and a lot of times the families love sharing their stories with the Commander-in-Chief. And to a person, nearly, I have been told that whatever you do, Mr. President, complete this job. Don't -- and basically what they're saying is, don't let politics, don't let the Gallup poll, don't let a focus group cause you to make a decision that is not in the best interests of our country and our military. And I assure them that they don't have to worry about that about George W. Bush."

Oh, please. They tell him not to listen to focus groups? It's true that Bush's aides are said to go to great lengths to shield him from unpleasantness. But, as Bloomberg's Edwin Chen and others have reported, Bush has had several encounters with angry survivors. "Rather than entering into a substantive debate with angry relatives, he disengages," Chen wrote. Chen described one encounter in August 2006, when Bush told an accusing widow: "I'm really not here to discuss public policy with you," and another in November 2003, when Bush told a grieving mother that she sounded hostile. "Of course I feel hostile. My only son was killed and I can't get an answer," the woman said she replied.

In another interview yesterday, Bush spoke with Setareh Derakhsheh of the Voice of America's Persian Service. She pitched him this softball: "As you know, Mr. President, this is the eve of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. What is your message to the Iranian people as they face tough economic circumstances and infringement on their freedoms?"

Bush said his main message is: "Please don't be discouraged by the slogans that say America doesn't like you, because we do, and we respect you."

And yet it isn't hard to imagine Bush's Iranian listeners finding some of his critiques against their government a bit hypocritical. "The leadership is in many ways very stubborn," he said. "Part of the problem is that it's very hard for people to trust the Iranian government because they haven't told the full truth, and that's why the people of Iran have got to understand there are great suspicions right now, not only in the United States, but around the world. . . .

"Once a nation hasn't told the truth, it requires a lot of work to convince people that they'll be telling the truth in the future."

And then there was an interview with Parichehr Farzam of U.S.-funded Radio Farda. A typical question: "Thank you. Mr. President, world democracy is everyone's rightful way of life. In Iran, on the other hand, there is no respect for the basic rights of Iranian citizen, there is no rule of law, and there is no, certainly, the freedom of speech. Do you believe that the people of Iran stand a chance against this regime, to bring about the positive change in any time soon with your support?"

Dinner With Friends

To cap off a day of grueling questions, the president and the first lady went to a dinner party last night at Michael Gerson's home in suburban Virginia, reports Jon Ward of the Washington Times. Gerson, Bush's former chief speechwriter, is now an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post.

Bush's Speech

I wrote in yesterday's column, Bush's Triumphalist Amnesia, about the colossal disconnect between rhetoric and reality in Bush's big speech on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war.

Dan Eggen writes in today's Washington Post: "Bush's remarks, delivered to employees at the Pentagon, signaled a revival of the bold and optimistic rhetoric the administration regularly employed during the early years of the war. The president and his aides had largely abandoned such sweeping declarations of success over the past two years, as the carnage on the ground increased and public approval of the war plummeted. . . .

"In one disputed portion of his address, Bush resurrected assertions that Osama bin Laden and his followers have played a central role in the Iraq conflict. Bush suggested that a backlash among local Sunni Muslims to the group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq amounted to 'the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology and his terror network.'

"Many terrorism experts say there are few operational contacts between bin Laden's group and its Iraqi namesake, and they note that the group was formed only after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is also considered a relatively small player in the constellation of insurgent forces battling U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to military, terrorism and intelligence experts.

"Paul R. Pillar, a retired senior CIA analyst who has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's run-up to the Iraq war, said much of Bush's speech 'could have been taken out of a speech five years ago.'

"'The rhetoric we hear in this speech is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we were hearing at the start,' said Pillar, who helped prepare CIA intelligence estimates that warned of the violence that would follow the invasion. 'The same case is being made for sustaining a presence in Iraq as was made to go into Iraq in the first place.'"

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush brought up al-Qaida 14 times Wednesday in a 26-minute speech marking the anniversary of the Iraq war. He wasn't coy about his point: If America stops fighting in Iraq, there could well be new attacks at home by Osama bin Laden's terror network. . . .

"In talking about al-Qaida in his address, Bush never used the actual name -- al-Qaida in Iraq -- of the shadowy Sunni-based extremist group that, though weakened, still operates as a major killer there. By only referring to 'al-Qaida,' he was suggesting that the Iraq group and bin Laden's al-Qaida are one and the same.

"The Iraq insurgency is believed to be foreign-led and pledges loyalty to the international terrorist network. But though the terms are often used interchangeably, particularly by military or administration officials, there is little or no evidence of coordination between the two groups. Experts question how closely they are even associated. . . .

"And Bush's assertion that Iraqi militants aim to wage attacks on American soil is questionable.

"Al-Qaida in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion. It is mostly homegrown, with its rank and file almost all Iraqis, and was created afterward to fight the American presence and establish an Islamic fundamentalist state in Iraq. There has been no evidence presented that the group is plotting or intends attacks outside of Iraq."

Ewen MacAskill writes in the Guardian: "Bush's comments amounted to his most upbeat assessment of the war since his famous 'mission accomplished' speech on a US aircraft carrier in May 2003.

"Since then, Iraq has been convulsed by Sunni and Shia insurgencies against the US-led coalition and vicious sectarian killings. The Iraq Body Count group, in a survey on behalf of the Guardian that looked at the death toll province by province, yesterday put the number of civilian deaths at 89,322.

"These are based on reported deaths, as opposed to other surveys that offer estimates and put the toll at between 600,000 and 1 million. The number of US soldiers killed is 3,990, and the British military death toll 175.

"Bush did not mention the failure to find Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the stated reason for war, but returned to the theme, warning that a hasty US withdrawal could lead to an emboldened al-Qaida, with access to Iraq's oil resources, pursuing 'its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations'.

"The cost of the war is estimated at between half a trillion and 3 trillion dollars. Bush said the latter figure was exaggerated, but did not provide one of his own.

"With less than a year left in office, the president is a largely isolated figure. Most of the neo-conservatives who pressed him to go to war have gone.

"The fragile multinational coalition Bush put together has also largely disappeared, with countries having either abandoned the war or left token forces behind."

The Economic Angle

Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe calls attention to a new rhetorical gambit in Bush's speech: His "warning of 'serious consequences for the world's economy' if the United States were to withdraw from Iraq and Al Qaeda were to seize control of the country's vast oil resources.

"Later in the president's speech, when addressing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush talked not only of the Americans who lost their lives, but of the large number who lost their jobs.

"'More than a million Americans lost work' following the attacks, he said.

"Bush's speech, which otherwise dwelled on the importance of military victory and the cost of defeat, was a quiet attempt to link Al Qaeda to America's economic woes, some analysts noted. They said the president was seeking to reshape his case for staying in Iraq in a way that would resonate with an American public that is increasingly worried about high oil prices and the likelihood of a recession. . . .

"But some specialists took issue yesterday with the idea that Al Qaeda would get control of Iraq's oil in the event of a US withdrawal, because the oil is in Shi'ite and Kurdish areas that are hostile to the group.

"'The idea that Al Qaeda is going to gain control over Iraq and export oil is a fairy tale, James Bond stuff,' said Ilan Goldenberg, policy director at the National Security Network, a liberal group of defense and foreign policy specialists.

"Michael Makovsky, who served as special assistant on Iraqi oil in the office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2006, said criminal gangs and Shi'ite militias in southern Iraq pose a more significant threat to Iraqi oil exports than Al Qaeda.

"Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, said 'the idea of Al Qaeda taking over the oil is stretch.'"

And here's more from yesterday's briefing with spokeswoman Dana Perino:

Q: "The President warned of the danger that al Qaeda could gain access to Iraq's oil resources. But I don't understand how a fragmented, clandestine, non-Iraqi terrorist organization could produce and sell Iraqi oil on the global market, especially when the majority of Iraqis have turned against al Qaeda. Could you describe a plausible scenario?"

Perino: "The purpose of what the President said is that al Qaeda should not be allowed to have safe haven in Iraq and take over --"

Q: "How can they take over Iraq's oil reserves --"

Perino: "Well, if we were to leave we would certainly ensue chaos and not be able to -- if we were to leave too soon, it would certainly be chaos and it would be terrible for not only the innocent Iraqis, but the entire region and, in fact, our own national security. That's what the President --"

Q" "But the Iraqis would let a foreign terrorist organization take over their oil?"

Perino: "You're missing the point, and I think that you should go back and read --"

Q: "No, I --"

Perino: "Yes, actually, I think you are missing the point. . . . I suggest that you read the President's speech and read it in context, because that's -- what you're suggesting is not what the President said."

For the record, what the president said: "An emboldened al Qaeda with access to Iraq's oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations."

The Context

Liz Sly writes in the Chicago Tribune: "On Baghdad's battered streets, signs of the progress made over the past year mingle uneasily with the debris of the violent upheaval that has torn Iraq apart over the past five years. . . .

"[F]ive years after the U.S.-led coalition launched the war that was to bring freedom, democracy and prosperity to a long-suffering populace, Iraq remains a broken country, with no clear sense of when, how or even if it is going to be fixed. . . .

"The statistics tell the story of a nation still a long way from recovery: About 60 percent of Iraqis lack access to clean drinking water, and 4 million don't get enough to eat, according to the United Nations. Electricity is supposed to average seven hours a day in Baghdad, but many areas still receive only two to three hours a day. An estimated 151,000 Iraqis have died during the war, as have nearly 4,000 U.S. troops. . . .

"Far from ending the civil conflict, the deployment of extra U.S. troops rather served to freeze it. Neighborhoods have been pacified to a large extent because local feuding factions concluded it was no longer in their interests to continue fighting a beefed-up U.S. force, or in many instances because members of the opposite sect were driven out altogether.

"For many, the war's chief legacy has been one of disappointment. 'I was expecting to travel the world and now I can't even go to Washash,' said Ammar Yahya, 33, referring to a Baghdad neighborhood now controlled by the Mahdi Army. . . .

"'We were so very happy when the Americans came,' he said. 'Now I wish we had stayed under Saddam's tyranny.'"

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It has been five years since the United States invaded Iraq and the world watched in horror as what seemed like a swift victory by modern soldiers and 21st-century weapons became a nightmare of spiraling violence, sectarian warfare, insurgency, roadside bombings and ghastly executions. Iraq's economy was destroyed, and America's reputation was shredded in the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Central Intelligence Agency's secret prisons.

"These were hard and very costly lessons for a country that had emerged from the cold war as the world's sole remaining superpower. Shockingly, President Bush seems to have learned none of them."

Poll Watch

Paul Steinhauser writes for CNN: "Just 31 percent of Americans approve of how President Bush is handling his job, according to a poll released Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

"Sixty-seven percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey disapprove of the president's performance.

"The 31 percent approval number is a new low for Bush in CNN polling, and 40 points lower than the president's number at the start of the Iraq war.

"'Bush's approval rating five years ago, at the start of the Iraq war, was 71 percent, and that 40-point drop is almost identical to the drop President Lyndon Johnson faced during the Vietnam War,' said CNN polling director Keating Holland."

Zogby reports: "Approval ratings for the President stand at just 26% this month, down from 34% who gave him positive job approval marks in February. Bush has lost ground across the political spectrum, including among likely voters in his own party -- fewer than half of Republicans (48%) view his job performance favorably, down from 61% last month. His support among political independents has fallen to 19% from 29% last month, and among Democrats, stands at 9%, down from 13%."

CNN also reports: "More than 7 out of 10 Americans think government spending on the war in Iraq is partly responsible for the economic troubles in the United States, according to results of a recent poll."

Two Slots Filled

Michael Abramowitz and Carrie Johnson write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday tapped veteran prosecutor Kenneth L. Wainstein to serve as his White House homeland security adviser as he moved to name another key counterterrorism official and defuse criticism that he has left important positions unfilled."

The Lame Duck Press Corps

Michael Calderone writes in Politico about "the White House beat during these lame duck days, where correspondents compete for front-page real estate and airtime with reporters on the campaign trail -- most often, unsuccessfully. . . .

"[S]everal White House correspondents, in interviews with Politico, describe a scene where one might expect tumbleweeds lazily blowing across the finely manicured lawn on Pennsylvania Avenue. Fewer reporters attend daily briefings, and both foreign and domestic travel budgets for many news organizations have been scaled back in the past year.

"Of course, senioritis is common in the final months of any eight-year administration. But this year, said reporters, the historically important and just plain exciting presidential race, coupled with the minimalist agenda of an unpopular president, has led to overall Bush fatigue that outranks the waning days of the Clinton administration.

"'You can't attribute it all to the presidential campaign,' said Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. '[Bush's] rhetoric is so exhausted. He rarely makes any news. It's rarely worth anyone's time to cover him like we used to.'"

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert notes Bush's videoconference with U.S. personnel in Afghanistan last week, in which Bush said: "I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."

Colbert responds with outrage -- at the soldiers in Afghanistan: "Soldiers, shame on you for arousing our president's envy. You must stop making multiple tours of duty battling foreign militias in a faraway land look like so much fun. While you're romantically running around dodging roadside bombs and rounding up potential terrorists, the president is stuck in the White House, pushing glazed salmon around his dinner plate and pretending to pay attention while Condi plays the piano. . . .

"Stop enticing the president. We could lose him again. Remember the last time he got excited about a war? He joined the Alabama National Guard, and nobody could find him."

Cartoon Watch

An Ann Telnaes animation on the sheepish White House press corps; Peter Brookes, Pat Shiplett and Joel Pett on the anniversary; Rob Rogers on Cheney as the Easter Bunny.

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