Cheney's Waning Influence?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 18, 2008; 12:59 PM

Vice President Cheney doesn't act in plain view, so discerning his influence on the Bush presidency has always been a bit of a guessing game. And in the wake of the White House's shift on Iran policy -- from saber-rattling to talking -- one guess is that Cheney's influence, at least on this issue, is waning.

Could it be that President Bush is listening less to his hawkish vice president in hopes of leaving behind a somewhat less toxic foreign-policy legacy?

Elaine Sciolino and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "With six months left in office, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to be looking for new ways to reach out to the Iranian people as the administration tries to bring a peaceful resolution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program.

"On Saturday, William J. Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, is to arrive in Geneva to participate, along with European Union nations, in talks with Iran aimed at persuading it to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for economic and political incentives. The talks are a first."

Bush is also reportedly about to announce the establishing of a special interests section in Tehran, which would constitute the first American diplomatic presence in Iran in nearly three decades.

"One senior European official said that Mr. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, had told a number of his counterparts in Tokyo in recent weeks that Ms. Rice was committed to moving forward on the decision to put American diplomats in Tehran, but that the decision still faced opposition from conservatives.

"'My feeling is that the decision was more or less taken and the administration's problem was when and how to announce it,' the official said. 'They want to do it, but for domestic political reasons they don't know how and when, and maybe even if, they can do it.'"

Leonard Doyle writes for the Independent: "Condoleezza Rice was George Bush's handmaiden for the war in Iraq but she is now emerging as the best hope for avoiding a military conflict between the United States and Iran.

"The Secretary of State, who is one of the few people with the President's ear, has shown the door to Vice-President Dick Cheney's cabal of war-hungry advisers. . . .

"In public, Ms Rice has been as bellicose as any neo-con when it comes to Iran, calling dialogue with its leaders 'pointless' and declaring: 'For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.'

"She had been the prime mover behind Mr Bush's disastrous policy of 'preventive wars' and cheerleader of his expansive plans to reorganise the entire Middle East and to 'export democracy'. But with the rumblings of war with Iran growing steadily louder, Ms Rice worked feverishly behind the scenes to stop sparks from flying in the drive by the US and Israel to shut down Iran's nuclear programme."

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times: "After years of escalating tensions and bloodshed, the talk in the Middle East is suddenly about talking. The shift is still relatively subtle, but hints of a new approach in the waning months of the Bush administration are fueling hopes of at least short-term stability for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. . . .

"Many underlying problems, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not on the verge of resolution. Afghanistan has recently seen a sharp spike in violence. In the Middle East, optimism can fill the void left by even a temporary lull in violence, like the recent -- and still fragile -- stability gains in Iraq. Nevertheless, not long ago, the fear was that Lebanon would descend into civil war and that either Israel or the United States, or both, would attack Iran. That seems less likely at the moment."

There is the possibility that this is a feint. As Slackman writes: "Some analysts suspect that Israel and the United States may be trying to placate their other enemies in advance of a military strike on Iran that they consider all but inevitable."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is very late in the game, but we hope this means that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are learning the lessons of seven years of failed foreign policies built almost completely on isolating (or attacking) America's adversaries. There is little chance of solving major international problems so long as this country refuses even to have a seat at the table.

"We also hope it means that Vice President Dick Cheney and his crew have given up their dangerous fantasy of bombing away Iran's nuclear ambitions -- or at least have been overruled by the president."

One British newspaper is nearly ready to dance on Cheney's grave.

The Guardian's editorial writers conclude: "America's decision to send a senior official to international talks with Iran in Geneva tomorrow marks a major, and long overdue, policy change. It could be at least as significant as the U-turn the country performed about talking to North Korea. It was preceded by a bitter internal debate in Washington, which its victors tried hard yesterday to conceal. . . .

"But try as they might, there was no disguising the fact that vice-president Dick Cheney, who has pushed hard for an air strike on Iran, had been defeated. As a result, America is now on a different track."

Guardian assistant editor Simon Tisdall writes in his opinion column: "It may be too early to proclaim an end to the 'Cheney era', but Washington's decision to participate in Saturday's nuclear talks with Iran and send diplomats back to Tehran is a very significant shift. It marks a nadir for the gun-toting neoconservatives who dominated the first Bush term and for their unofficial champion, vice-president Dick Cheney, the stealthy advice-giver also known as 'whispering grass'.

"Noisy sabre-rattling and a crescendo of shouted threats exchanged by Iran and Israel in recent weeks convinced many observers that the Middle East was on the brink of a new conflagration. They feared a 'second Iraq' was in the making, again triggered by worries about real or imagined weapons of mass destruction.

"That dreaded spectre appears to be receding for now. A 'second North Korea' remains the preferred model for the US state department and the European allies -- meaning talks leading to voluntary disarmament in return for security, aid and normalisation. This is just the sort of multilateral 'soft power' horsetrading Cheney & Co cannot abide."

But Abbas Edalat, the founder of an anti-war group, writes in a Guardian opinion piece: "While the positive shift in policy is a setback for them, the hawks are by no means defeated. We have been in this position before. The US and Iran had three rounds of negotiations about stability in Iraq last year, which only led to a new hype in US accusations against Iran. On Monday, Israeli military adviser Amos Gilad said that Israel is preparing to attack Iran if diplomacy fails, and that the US would not veto it."

And Israeli historian Benny Morris lets loose with an apocalyptic vision in a New York Times op-ed: "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months -- and the leaders in Washington and even Tehran should hope that the attack will be successful enough to cause at least a significant delay in the Iranian production schedule, if not complete destruction, of that country's nuclear program. Because if the attack fails, the Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war -- either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb."

Euphemism Watch

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino released a statement this morning about Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regular video conference.

"In the context of these improving political, economic, and security conditions, the President and the Prime Minister discussed the ongoing negotiations to establish a normalized bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United States. . . .

"In the area of security cooperation, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. The President and Prime Minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal."

What's a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals"? More on Monday.

Ashcroft's Testimony

Defying the conventional wisdom in Washington that he would emerge as a scourge to the White House, former attorney general John Ashcroft staunchly defended the administration's interrogation policies yesterday at a congressional hearing.

CNN reports: "The controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding has served a 'valuable' purpose and does not constitute torture, former Attorney General John Ashcroft told a House committee Thursday."

Thinkprogress.org has a few excerpts.

Ashcroft: "My job, as Attorney General, was to try and elicit from the experts and the best people in the Department definitions that comported with the statues enacted by the Congress and the Constitution of the United States. And those statutes have consistently been interpreted so as to say, by the definitions that, waterboarding, as described in the CIA's request, is not torture."

In reality, waterboarding has been an archetypal form of torture since the Spanish Inquisition. And as The Washington Post editorial board wrote in October: "The interrogation technique simulates drowning and can cause excruciating mental and physical pain; it has been prosecuted in U.S. courts since the late 1800s and was regarded by every U.S. administration before this one as torture."

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "Former Attorney General John Ashcroft on Thursday disavowed the now-defunct legal reasoning used to justify harshly questioning terrorism suspects, but dug in his heels to defend White House officials. . . .

"Ashcroft was attorney general when he approved two Justice Department legal opinions in 2002 and 2003 that, essentially, approved the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods so long as they did not 'cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure.' . . .

"Ashcroft agreed to withdraw both memos a few years later after his advisers said they were concerned that the legal reasoning behind them overstepped the limits of executive authority.

"'My philosophy is that if we've done something that we can improve, why would we not want to improve it? Why would we not want to adjust it?' Ashcroft told the committee."

Here is Slate's Dahlia Lithwick talking to NPR's Alex Chadwick yesterday: "I think what the House Democrats wanted to hear today was Ashcroft saying, 'I withdrew the original memos because they were bad and they caused torture.' That was certainly the hope. The hope was that they could really get him to explain that those first memos were horrific legal reasoning and that's why he withdrew them."

Chadwick: "And how does Mr. Ashcroft seem to be responding now?"

Lithwick: "Well, he is just so, so deft, Alex. First of all he says, 'Look, we withdrew the bad memo. Doesn't that in itself prove that the system worked? We self-corrected without any oversight.' That's his first argument. And then he really, really kind of down-plays how bad those first memos were. He talked today about how they were, quote, 'unnecessary discussions.' They were, quote, 'overly broad.' That there was just some bad language in there that needed to be corrected, repaired, and fixed."

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "In his first Capitol Hill appearance to address national security issues since leaving the Justice Department three years ago, Ashcroft batted away probing questions, blaming his memory and citing the still-classified status of memos and programs the Bush administration adopted after Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

"Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) pressed Ashcroft on whether he or others at the Justice Department provided legal advice to CIA agents who questioned al-Qaeda operative Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, commonly known as Abu Zubaida, for several months beginning in March 2002. A formal Office of Legal Counsel memo supporting the aggressive interrogation strategies was not issued until August of that year.

"That timeline led Christopher Anders, a senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to question whether the interrogators operated outside the bounds of the law and whether they could face investigation for what one FBI agent later told the Justice inspector general was 'borderline torture.'"

ABC News reported in April that, after Ashcroft was one of several senior administration officials who micromanaged the torture of terrorist suspects from the White House basement in 2002. Ashcroft reportedly asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

Yesterday, Ashcroft refused to confirm that such meetings ever took place. And asked about the verdict of history, he responded: "I think history is already judging this administration as being successful in the deterring and preventing additional terrorist acts."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that Ashcroft is being seen as a voice of reason by some largely because the tenure of his successor, Alberto Gonzales, "ranged from incompetence to lawlessness."

Kate Klonick notes for TPM Muckraker that Ashcroft set the bar for his testimony pretty low, asserting in his prepared statement"that he had 'limited recollection' of the events pertinent to the committee's inquiry. Specifically, 'it's been difficult . . . to distinguish between what I in fact recall as a matter of my own experience, and what I remember from the accounts of others.'"

'Total Failure'

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has been a 'total failure' in everything from the economy to the war to energy policy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. In an interview on CNN, the California Democrat was asked to respond to video of the president criticizing the Democratic-led Congress for heading into the final 26 days of the legislative session without having passed a single government spending bill.

"Pelosi shot back in unusually personal terms. . . .

"Pelosi's outburst was a departure. Her usual practice in public has been to call Bush's policies a failure -- not his presidency or him, personally. Pelosi's remarks are the latest evidence of the Democrats' throw-caution-to-the-wind approach to Bush in the waning days of a presidency weighed down by an unpopular war and soaring gasoline prices.

"Election Day, after all, is just over four months away; Bush's successor takes his seat on Jan. 20."

Here's Pelosi's full response: "Well, you know, God bless him, bless his heart, the president of the United States, a total failure, losing all credibility with the American people on the economy, on the war, on energy, you name the subject. And for him to be challenging Congress when we are trying to sweep up after his mess over and over and over again, at the end of the day, Congress will have passed -- honored its responsibility to pass legislation starting with our Department of Defense bill.

"The president knows it. He needs something to talk about because he has no ideas."

Bush and McCain

James Carney writes for Time: "In a business of bitter rivalries and awkward alliances, few political relationships have been more bitter, awkward or downright tortured than John McCain's eight-year entanglement with George W. Bush. After their nasty 2000 battle for the G.O.P. nomination, McCain's differences with Bush were so numerous and so deep that in 2001 he discussed with top Democratic leaders quitting the Republican Party. Three years later, McCain remained so estranged from the White House that John Kerry begged him to run with him on the Democratic ticket against Bush. Even though their rapprochement in 2004 drained some of the bile from their relationship, the two men have never been friends. At best, theirs is a partnership sustained by the benefits each has conferred on the other and a grudging admiration each has for the other's toughness.

"McCain's embrace of Bush helped him emerge as the G.O.P. nominee this year from a crowded field of flawed candidates. But it came with a steep price, for his ties to the President now act like leg weights in his race against Barack Obama."

Carney writes that by the spring of 2004, "it was dawning on McCain's circle of advisers that with no Vice President or other heir apparent to Bush in the mix, their man could run again in 2008 -- but he'd have to improve his standing within the G.O.P. . . .

"It wasn't long before McCain was embracing Bush -- literally. A photo of him awkwardly hugging the President has become the iconic image of their rapprochement, one that Democrats are already using against him. McCain, at least, took the embrace to heart: nobody campaigned harder for Bush's reelection than he did."

Carney also reveals that McCain was one of three senators who witnessed a particularly telling White House moment -- and was evidently the source who told reporters about it, as well.

"Despite his public support for Bush after 9/11, McCain had deep misgivings about him as Commander in Chief. In March 2002, he and two other Senators were at the White House, briefing Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, about their recent meetings with European allies when Bush unexpectedly stuck his head in the door. 'Are you all talking about Iraq?' the President asked, his voice tinged with schoolyard bravado. Before McCain and the others in the room could do more than nod, Bush waved his hand dismissively. 'F___ Saddam,' he said. 'We're taking him out.' And then he left.

"McCain was appalled. He was a Republican, and a hawk, and exactly one year later he would enthusiastically support the decision to topple the Iraqi regime by force. But to McCain, his encounter with Bush that day was more evidence of the shallow intellect and dangerous self-regard possessed by the man to whom he had lost an acrimonious contest two years earlier. Later, McCain would retell the story and shake his head incredulously. 'Can you believe this guy?' he asked. 'He's the President!' He didn't say it, but the continuation of the thought hung in the air: Can you believe this guy is President -- instead of me?"

Time first reported the incident, without mentioning McCain, in May 2002. Publicly, Bush has always maintained that he was trying to avoid war until shortly before the invasion was launched in March 2003.

Global Warming Watch

David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post: "Climate change will pose 'substantial' threats to human health in the coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday -- issuing its warnings about heat waves, hurricanes and pathogens just days after the agency declined to regulate the pollutants blamed for warming. . . .

"The strong warnings highlighted the contorted position that the EPA has staked out on climate change. Last week, the agency decided not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, at least not until after President Bush's term ends.

"A former EPA official told a House panel this week that senior administration officials and several Cabinet members supported regulating the emissions before the White House changed course and barred the EPA from concluding that they endanger public welfare. . . .

"In a closed interview Tuesday, former EPA deputy associate administrator Jason K. Burnett told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that Joel D. Kaplan, Bush's deputy chief of staff for policy, originally signed off on the decision to regulate emissions from both vehicles and stationary sources such as power plants and refineries. The decision came in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that instructed the administration to determine whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

"'There was a general belief that moving forward with a challenge and establishing a precedent in channeling regulation would serve the country better than leaving the challenge to the next administration,' Burnett said in the interview, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post [ now posted online]. 'The chief of staff's office then appears to have changed its mind.'

"Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the House panel, said in a statement: 'Today typifies the climate-change schizophrenia in the Bush administration. On one hand, government scientists are saying that global warming poses grave threats to our health and our welfare, and, on the other hand, [there] are White House political hacks following the oil industry's bidding to do nothing.'"

New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer, via Andrew Revkin's blog, writes that Burnett "said the White House was won over by the argument, pushed by oil companies and others, that such regulation should not be part of the Bush legacy" and "that the argument for putting off any carbon dioxide limits was made by 'individuals working for particular oil companies, Exxon Mobil,' as well as oil industry trade associations."

Disaster Watch

Eric Bailey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush toured the front lines of Northern California's historic wildfires Thursday to buck up the troops and extol his administration's efforts to wage war on the flames."

Bush "met with leaders of the wildfire fight and visited a hangar to talk to a team of smoke jumpers, who parachute into the heart of wildfires.

"The president's eyes grew wide when John Casey, a 38-year-old veteran, said he'd made 200 jumps. 'I couldn't do it,' Bush said, adding, 'I appreciate your service.'"

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's trip to Northern California provides another example of his keen attention to natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina, when his political fortunes tumbled after a slow and bungled response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.

"'I always come to make sure that the federal government is coordinating closely with the state government,' Bush told reporters in Redding after the helicopter tour."

The Snow Funeral

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush led a poignant tribute on Thursday to his friend and former spokesman, Tony Snow, who lost his public fight with cancer but never surrendered the spirit that defined his life.

"The somber president spoke of Snow as he would a member of his family, and to many of those who work at the White House, that's what Snow was. He served a relatively short 16-month stint as Bush's press secretary, but he made friends fast, and earned respect for handling his disease with grace and hope.

"'Everyone who worked with him quickly grew to love him,' the president said. 'We will always remember his wry sense of humor and abundant goodness. We'll also remember he was just a lot of fun.'"

Roxanne Roberts writes in The Washington Post: "Almost every prominent journalist in Washington -- including the White House correspondents with whom Snow sparred daily during his year at the White House -- came to pay respects. Even when reporters disagreed with him professionally . . . well, they still liked the guy."

Library Watch

Angela K. Brown writes for the Associated Press: "A Methodist leadership group on Thursday endorsed building George W. Bush's presidential library center at Southern Methodist University, essentially ending nearly two years of opposition."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "President Bush has a new 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. It involves his presidential library. Fundraising for the library is going on -- in secret, we are told, shielded even from the president himself. According to White House press secretary Dana Perino, Mr. Bush 'has asked that members of his foundation do not inform him about anyone who has written a check, or decided not to write a check, until after he's no longer president.' Do they tell the check writers, one wonders, that the president won't actually know about their generosity? Does the president, if some eager-beaver donor starts to blab about his gift, put his fingers in his ears and start to talk over the giver, like a child who doesn't want to listen to his parents? . . .

"Secret fundraising is a stinky business. Mr. Bush's decision to stick his head in the sand doesn't relieve the stench."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "Impeachment is out for President George W. Bush, but a top U.S. lawmaker said on Thursday he wants to take a look at his 'imperial presidency.'

"House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers announced his panel would examine possible administration wrongdoing, which has included complaints that Bush misled the United States into the Iraq war in 2003.

"'Over the last seven plus years, there have been numerous credible allegations of serious misconduct by officials in the Bush administration,' said Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.

"He scheduled a July 25 hearing on 'the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush and possible legal responses.'..

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto brushed off the action, saying, 'Representative Conyers is putting the final stamp on a chairmanship that will be most remembered as a political vaudeville act.'"

John Nichols writes for The Nation: "[W]hen all is said and done, the committee is only supposed to 'accumulate' the evidence of imperial over-reach, not to act upon it.

"This will frustrate ardent advocates for presidential accountability. And rightly so.

"But the opportunity presented by the Judiciary Committee hearing ought not be dismissed or diminished. . . .

"A thoughtful review of that information, in a formal setting, will make clear the extent of which this president and those around him have engaged in precisely the sort of wrongdoing that the founders imagined when they gave the House the power to impeach members of the executive branch.

"Achieving that clarity -- ideally on live television -- is an imperfect, yet essential, step in the arduous process of getting reluctant members of the House to uphold an oath of office that requires them to 'support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.'"

Bush Memorial Watch

Marisa Lagos writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "San Francisco voters will be asked to decide whether to name a city sewage plant in honor of President Bush, after a satiric measure qualified for the November ballot Thursday."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "Yesterday down on the White House lawn, President Bush and all the boys got together and had a T-ball game. . . . They had a great time. Everything was going well until Vice President Cheney waterboarded the umpire."

Cartoon Watch

Steve Sack on Bush hitting the beach; Bob Lang on Bush's hearing problem; John Deering on Bush's words of reassurance; Pat Bagley on Bush's sound economy; Jim Morin on a White House above the law.

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