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The Omnipresent Vice President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 26, 2007; 3:54 PM

President Bush has all but vanished from the national and international radar. But Vice President Cheney is everywhere and in the thick of it all.

His credibility may be shot, he and his boss may be lame ducks, his signal achievement -- the war in Iraq -- may now be almost universally disparaged, his former chief of staff may soon be found guilty of multiple felonies, but it would appear that rumors of the vice president's demise as a political force have been greatly exaggerated.

Consider the following:

* Cheney's latest stops on a highly-publicized world tour have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is said to be belatedly but forcefully pressing government leaders to be more aggressive in hunting down Al Qaeda operatives.

* Since the British announcement of a troop withdrawal from Iraq last week, Cheney has been the administration's point man in a fervid but inevitably fruitless attempt to spin that as a sign of success.

* Cheney has also become the foremost defender of the administration's Iraqi policy in general -- though in doing so he has further fueled criticisms that his assertions are often unsupported and sometimes misleading.

* In an interview on Friday, Cheney defended his assertion in 1991 that invading Iraq would result in a quagmire -- reopening speculation about what Cheney and Bush knew before they went to war in Iraq, what they told the American people, and the gulf between the two.

* Last week, Cheney suddenly spoke in highly critical terms about China, scolding it for behaviour he called "not consistent" with its stated aim of a peaceful rise as a global power.

* Even as I write, Cheney's former chief of staff if awaiting his fate at Washington's federal courthouse, and the verdict -- whichever way it goes -- will inevitably remind the public of Cheney's important and unseemly role in the leaking of a CIA operative's identity. (One juror was dismissed from the jury today, after being exposed to some sort of outside information about the case.)

* And then there's Iran. The reports that Bush is gearing up for strikes against that country may be ambiguous and speculative -- but there appears to be little doubt that Cheney is the lead hawk pushing for a more aggressive posture.

Cheney Delivers a Message

David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti write for the New York Times this morning: "Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Pakistan on Monday to deliver what officials in Washington described as an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda.

"Mr. Cheney's trip was shrouded in secrecy, and he was on the ground for only a few hours, sharing a private lunch with the Pakistani leader at his palace. . . .

"The decision to send Mr. Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country's most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"Now, American intelligence officials have concluded that the terrorist infrastructure is being rebuilt, and that while Pakistan has attacked some camps, its overall effort has flagged."

But how much of a "bad cop" was Cheney with Musharraf? Normally, that's a role that suits the vice president nicely. But just last week, in one of Cheney's two interviews with ABC News, the vice president argued that continuing the fight in Iraq was necessary in part so that allies like Musharraf won't think we've abandoned them.

"Think about all the people out there in that part of the world from Presidents like Karzai in Afghanistan and Musharraf in Pakistan, down to the guy who is toting a rifle in the Afghan Security Forces. They have signed on in this global conflict against the extremist element of Islam, signed on with the United States.

"Karzai and Musharraf every day they go to work put their lives on the line. There have been assassination attempts against both of them."

Sanger and Mazzetti note the unusual secrecy about Cheney's trip -- even compared to Bush's visit to the region: "The vice president's office asked news organizations that knew of Mr. Cheney's upcoming trip, and the small number of reporters traveling with him, to withhold any mention of his travels until after he had left the country. That request went far beyond the usual precautions as American officials travel into and out of Pakistan. President Bush's visit there last year was announced in advance, and a recent trip by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was announced after he had landed in the country.

"It was unclear if the request reflected Mr. Cheney's well-known penchant for secrecy -- he said nothing in public during his visit -- or an increasing unease by the Secret Service about how freely Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives are moving in Pakistan. There have long been doubts about the loyalties of some members of Mr. Musharaff's intelligence service, and assassination attempts against him have been linked to Al Qaeda."

Cheney Misleads

I wrote at length about Cheney's interviews with ABC News in Friday's column.

Cheney, among other things, repeated and amplified his opinion that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's proposed course in Iraq would validate al Qaeda.

Michael Abramowitz writes in Saturday's Washington Post with an important observation: "The remarks . . . reflected Cheney's frequent suggestion that al-Qaeda is the United States' principal adversary in Iraq, a stance disputed by many experts inside and outside the government. A recent National Intelligence Estimate concluded that factors in Iraqi violence include 'extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa'ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence.'"

Cheney Ducks on Britain

Cheney's comment last week that he saw the British withdrawal from Iraq as an "affirmation," earned him widespread ridicule. (See my Thursday column.)

At a brief press availability Saturday alongside Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Cheney was asked an excellent follow-up question by Olivier Knox of AFP.

"QUESTION: Mr. Vice President, you've said that the British draw-down from Iraq reflects their success there and not domestic considerations. Did the United States ask for them to redeploy those troops inside Iraq to take some strain off the U.S. forces involved in the Baghdad Security Plan and in al Anbar province? And if not, why not?"

It was a no-win question for Cheney: Either he had to admit that the British turned the U.S. down -- or he'd have to explain why the U.S. government didn't even ask its foremost ally for help in these challenging times.

So Cheney ducked it, and answered with non-responsive platitudes.

"VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, the Brits have been great allies in the efforts -- mutual efforts in Iraq. They have been there from the very beginning, as have our Australian friends. They have to make decisions with respect to their forces based upon what they think makes sense. Prime Minister Blair did consult with President Bush in terms of moving forward, and the comments I made reflected their communications with us, the fact that they believe the situation has improved in Basra and southern Iraq, which has been their prime area of operation."

Speaking of the Brits, Newsweek reports: "In public, British and American officials say the U.K.'s withdrawal of troops from southern Iraq is a sign of success. But that wasn't the private reaction when the Brits first explained their plans last year. Several officials on both sides of the Atlantic (who all declined to be named when discussing the internal debate on security issues) say there was real consternation among Bush's aides about the prospect of a British withdrawal at a time when the president was planning to make the case for a surge of troops. Two senior officials in Washington said the concern was about how the British drawdown would look in PR and political terms inside the Beltway."

And, on a lighter note, Houston Chronicle blogger Julie Mason notes the uncanny physical resemblance between Howard and Cheney.

Cheney and the Quagmire

One of Cheney's comments from Friday's ABC News interview with Jonathan Karl, bears further examination.

As I noted in Friday's column, it may have been the first time a reporter asked Cheney to respond to his now-famous assertion in 1991 that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would result in a quagmire.

From Friday's interview:

"Cheney: Well, I stand by what I said in '91. But look what's happened since then -- we had 9/11."

He explained the reasoning behind going ahead with the invasion of Iraq anyway: "[W]e got hit in '93 at the World Trade Center, in '96 at Khobar Towers, or '98 in the East Africa embassy bombings, 2000, the USS Cole. And of course, finally 9/11 right here at home. They continued to hit us because we didn't respond effectively, because they believed we were weak."

On Friday, I marveled at the logic: "So if I read this correctly, Cheney is saying: Yes, it's a quagmire. But after 9/11 we needed to prove that we weren't weak."

But it's more than that, and reporters should follow up on this issue because it is hugely important.

Is Cheney really acknowledging that he always knew that the occupation of Iraq would be a quagmire?

In that case, wasn't it deceitful of him to repeatedly suggest that the invasion would be easy -- including his famous prewar statement that "we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

Cheney, for the record, was even more prescient in 1992, as Charles Pope wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year: "In an assessment that differs sharply with his view today, Dick Cheney more than a decade ago defended the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, telling a Seattle audience that capturing Saddam wouldn't be worth additional U.S. casualties or the risk of getting 'bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.' . . .

"'Once we had rounded him up and gotten rid of his government, then the question is what do you put in its place? You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq.'"

And Cheney's suggestion that the war in Iraq had a lot to do with not looking weak reinforces the view that the administration's reasons for going to war in Iraq were not necessarily the same ones they advertised.

White House Watch reader Jeffrey Cuneo e-mailed me on Friday: "This, in essence, was and still is his argument to invade Iraq - to show the world, Al-Queda and other sympathizers residing mostly in the Middle East that the US is not weak. The problem, however, is that he made up the rest - the wmd's, the nuclear threat, the yellow cake, etc.

"If Cheney was honest, this was the argument he would have presented to the American people. But it was not. Thus, one must not forget that Cheney has been dishonest with the American people from the beginning. And this dishonesty was fundamentally about war and peace."

Cheney: A Political Liability?

Kelley Shannon writes for the Associated Press: "Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama ridiculed Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday for saying Britain's decision to pull troops from Iraq is a good sign that fits with the strategy for stabilizing the country.

"Obama, speaking at a massive outdoor rally in Austin, Texas, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision this week to withdraw 1,600 troops is a recognition that Iraq's problems can't be solved militarily.

"'Now if Tony Blair can understand that, then why can't George Bush and Dick Cheney understand that?' Obama asked thousands of supporters who gathered in the rain to hear him. 'In fact, Dick Cheney said this is all part of the plan (and) it was a good thing that Tony Blair was withdrawing, even as the administration is preparing to put 20,000 more of our young men and women in.

"'Now, keep in mind, this is the same guy that said we'd be greeted as liberators, the same guy that said that we're in the last throes. I'm sure he forecast sun today,' Obama said to laughter from supporters holding campaign signs over their heads to keep dry. 'When Dick Cheney says it's a good thing, you know that you've probably got some big problems.'"

Cheney and China

James Fallows writes for the Atlantic: "In his speech yesterday in Australia, the Vice President helpfully observed that the satellite test, plus the buildup of China's military (with a budget still a tiny fraction of America's) was 'not consistent with China's stated goal of a peaceful rise.' . . .

"[T]here could be no less effective spokesman for American concern or for the interests of international order than Cheney. This is the man who has refused to answer to his own public for -- well, for anything. For his insistence that everything has gone just as planned in Iraq. For his claim before the war that 'There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.' For his claim after the war that the Iraqi insurgency was in its 'last throes.' For his role, as described in prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's closing statement, as the central, unindicted malefactor in the Scooter Libby case. Even for shooting his friend in the face. . . .

"Dick Cheney, the man who is accountable for nothing, is the person who will tell other countries what is 'consistent' with a peaceful image in the world?

"If you haven't spent a lot of time outside the United States recently, you may not been made aware in a painful, humiliating way of how grievously America's moral standing has suffered because of Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, and the general carnage in Iraq. It's hard in general to get non-Americans to listen to lectures about seemly behavior these days. It's hardest of all when the lectures come from the man who, to the rest of the world, personifies America's squandering of the qualities that made it special."

Cheney and Libby

E.J. Dionne Jr., writing in his Washington Post opinion column, draws a parallel between the Libby trial and Cheney's latest attack on Pelosi.

"The fabricate-and-smear cycle illustrated so dramatically during the case of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby explains why President Bush is failing to rally support for the latest iteration of his Iraq policy. The administration's willingness at the outset to say anything, no matter how questionable, to justify the war has destroyed its credibility. Its habit of attacking those who expressed misgivings has destroyed any goodwill it might have enjoyed. Bush and Cheney have lost the benefit of the doubt."

Cheney at a Loss

Sometimes it's the softball questions that can get the most telling responses

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview on Friday with Greg Sheridan of the Australian.

"Q Sir, you've been Vice President a long time now --

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: It seems like it -- six years. (Laughter.)

"Q What's the highlight for you personally of being Vice President, your time in office?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: What's the highlight? I'm going to have to think about that when I get out of office and I have time to do it. Clearly, our administration has been dominated by the events of 9/11 and the aftermath. That has clearly become front and center in terms of our concerns and we spend our time, how we spend our resources. And I think in terms of accomplishments, the fact that we've defeated all attempts to strike the United States again for the last five years doesn't mean we won't be hit tomorrow. They're still out there trying hard, but it has been over five years now."

Ask Cheney for a highlight of his six-plus years as vice president, and the only thing that comes to mind is 9/11.

Iran Watch

Seymour Hersh writes for the New Yorker: "In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The 'redirection,' as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. . . .

"The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney's office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, 'The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.') . . .

"The Bush Administration's reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then--notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams--are involved in today's dealings.

"Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal 'lessons learned' discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: 'One, you can't trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can't trust the uniformed military, and four, it's got to be run out of the Vice-President's office'--a reference to Cheney's role, the former senior intelligence official said.

"I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in [John] Negroponte's decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told CNN today that Hersh "has a wanton disregard for the truth."

Iran and Iraq

The administration continues to assert Iranian involvement in arming Iraqi insurgents. Once again, New York Times reporters got the first word.

James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr. write in the New York Times: "A raid on a Shiite weapons cache in the southern city of Hilla one week ago is providing what American officials call the best evidence yet that the deadliest roadside bombs in Iraq are manufactured in Iran, but critics contend that the forensic case remains circumstantial and inferential. . . .

"The assertion that the latest find greatly bolsters the theory of the Iranian origin of the E.F.P.'s is significant because it could provide the United States with a new justification to take action against Iran. But the evidence is unlikely to satisfy skeptics who have been suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to lay the groundwork for isolating or even attacking Iran. They point to the flawed intelligence used by the administration to accuse Saddam Hussein of harboring unconventional weapons before invading Iraq nearly four years ago.

"Still, American military officials appear to be making an attempt to respond to critics who say the evidence is inconclusive."

This latest information comes courtesy of American officials, all but one of whom apparently remained anonymous, who gave "lengthy briefings" to New York Times reporters. The reporters agreed to withhold "some specific details about the weapons to protect intelligence sources and methods." (An earlier version of this column mistakenly reported that all of the Times's sources for this story were anonymous.)

Bad Intelligence Again?

Bob Drogin and Kim Murphy write in the Los Angeles Times from Vienna: "Although international concern is growing about Iran's nuclear program and its regional ambitions, diplomats here say most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran."

A Prediction

Michael T. Klare writes for TomDispatch.com: "Sometime this spring or summer, barring an unexpected turnaround by Tehran, President Bush is likely to go on national television and announce that he has ordered American ships and aircraft to strike at military targets inside Iran. We must still sit through several months of soap opera at the United Nations in New York and assorted foreign capitals before this comes to pass, and it is always possible that a diplomatic breakthrough will occur -- let it be so! -- but I am convinced that Bush has already decided an attack is his only option and the rest is a charade he must go through to satisfy his European allies. The proof of this, I believe, lies half-hidden in recent public statements of his, which, if pieced together, provide a casus belli, or formal list of justifications, for going to war."

Disaster Drill

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Dozens of high-level officials joined in a White House drill yesterday to see how the government would respond if several cities were attacked simultaneously with bombs similar to those used against U.S. troops in Iraq. . . .

"President Bush went on a bike ride yesterday morning and did not take part in the test."

Web Site Redesign

The White House Web site has undergone a redesign. The functionality (or, in the case of site search, lack of functionality) remains pretty much the same.

Poll Watch

Jon Cohen writes for The Washington Post: "Two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how the President is handling the Iraq war; 31 percent approve. And intensity continues to run against Bush on the issue: Fifty-five percent 'strongly disapprove' of his work there, while only 17 percent 'strongly approve' of it.

"Bush's ratings on Iraq continue to be highly partisan. While two-thirds of Republicans approve of how Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, more than nine in 10 Democrats disapprove of the job he is doing there. Among independents, 31 percent approve and 68 percent disapprove. Intensity is also a factor here: Eighty-three percent of Democrats strongly disapprove of Bush's performance on the Iraq issue, while far fewer Republicans, 38 percent, strongly approve.

"The war also remains the biggest drag on the President's overall approval rating. In this poll, 36 percent approved of the way Bush is handling his job, 62 percent disapproved. Bush's approval rating has increased marginally from five weeks ago, when it matched his career low of 33 percent."

What Does Bush Know?

Timothy Noah writes in Slate, excerpting from Andrew Cockburn's new book: "Rumsfeld: His Rise, His Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy."

Cockburn apparently retells two anecdotes from Bush's August 2004 vacation at his father's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine:

"Bush 43 still sometimes drew on his father's wide knowledge of the world. Though he refused to read newspapers, he was aware of criticism that his administration had been excessively beholden to a particular clique, and wanted to know more about them. One day during that holiday, according to friends of the family, 43 asked his father, 'What's a neocon?'

"'Do you want names, or a description?' answered 41.


"'Well,' said the former president of the United States, 'I'll give it to you in one word: Israel.'"

Writes Noah: "Let's set aside the question of whether it's fair to describe neocons as caring only about Israel. (My own view is that it would have been unfair, and possibly anti-Semitic, 20 years ago, but that the neocon agenda has since dwindled to such an extent that by now it's an acceptable shorthand, if slightly risqué.) Instead, let's focus on the anecdote's suggestion that as recently as two and a half years ago, the president of the United States didn't know what neocon meant."

Columnist Humor

Al Martinez writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "For those bewildered by Dick Cheney's response to the British troop withdrawal from Iraq as a sign of progress in the war, I have an explanation. It's his Bizarro genes. One of our vice president's antecedents was no doubt from the square planet Htrae, to which Bizarro, Superman's evil opposite, once fled, populating that world with characters who invert logic.

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on Habeas W. Corpus; Garry Trudeau on the missing Iraqi troops.

The Oscars

AFP reports: "The award-winning Mexican director of foreign-language Oscar favorite 'Pan's Labyrinth' took a swipe Saturday at President George W. Bush on the eve of the Academy Awards.

"Guillermo Del Toro told a reception in Beverly Hills that he had been surprised to learn that his film, a fable about a little girl who retreats into a fantasy world in fascist Spain, had been shown at the White House. . . .

"'Having garnered praise from Stephen King, I felt it would be interesting to see what a true master of horror would think. Or a master of science-fiction if you think about the intelligence on Iraq.'"

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