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Cheney Beats the Drums of War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 22, 2007; 1:56 PM

Just four days after President Bush said the best way to avoid "World War III" was to prevent Iran from obtaining the know-how to build a nuclear bomb, Vice President Cheney vowed that Iran would face "serious consequences" if "it stays on its present course."

In an address yesterday to a pro-Israel think tank, Cheney stepped up the warlike rhetoric against Iran, most notably by linking Iran's government to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq more explicitly than ever before.

"Given the nature of Iran's rulers, the declarations of the Iranian president, and the trouble the regime is causing throughout the region -- including direct involvement in the killing of Americans -- our country and the entire international community cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its most aggressive ambitions," Cheney said. He offered no new evidence for his accusation.

John Hendren reports for ABC News: "Cheney's statement bore a striking resemblance to this warning before an audience of Republicans on Jan. 31, 2003, less than two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq: 'We will not permit a brutal dictator with ties to terror and a record of feckless aggression to dominate the Middle East and to threaten the United States.'

"A spokeswoman for the vice president said his statements today echoed his previous comments on Iran." (See, for instance, March 7, 2006, and May 11, 2007.)

"But analysts said the administration's talk on Iran has taken on a tone of rising warning and aggressiveness, particularly on a week that included an unusually strongly worded admonition from President Bush earlier this week. . . .

"The rising rhetoric could signal that President Bush intends to take action -- possibly military action -- to halt Iran's nuclear program before the president leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, some analysts said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The remarks, just days after President Bush suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to 'World War III,' amounted to Part II of a one-two punch from the administration at a moment when it is trying to persuade its allies in Europe to impose stiffer sanctions on Tehran."

While Cheney's language was not radically different from what he has used in the past, Stolberg writes that "people at the conference said that, placed in the context of Mr. Bush's remarks, it represented a significant step toward increasing pressure on Iran. The speech seemed to lay the groundwork for the threat of military action -- either because the administration actually intends to use force or because it wants to use the threat of force to prod Europe into action."

Stolberg continues: "Mr. Bush has repeatedly said the administration would not 'tolerate' a nuclear-armed Iran. But during a news conference on Wednesday, the president went further, saying of Iran: 'If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.'"

Furthermore, Stolberg notes: "That distinction -- having the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon, as opposed to actually having a weapon -- is one the administration has not made in the past. David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who moderated a panel discussion before and after Mr. Cheney's speech, said the vice president also seemed to draw a new red line when, instead of saying it is 'not acceptable' for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, he said the world 'will not allow' it.

"'The first is a condition,' Mr. Makovsky said. 'The second is a commitment.'"

Jitendra Joshi writes for AFP: "Cheney's warning to Iran recalled UN Security Council resolutions in 2002 that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein faced 'serious consequences' if he failed to come clean on his alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

"Speaking on CNN Sunday, Democratic Representative Jane Harman said the administration's threatening language against Iran was 'very dangerous.'

"'We heard about mushroom clouds and other images before the military action in Iraq. I wish the president would avoid that,' she said, calling for tougher UN sanctions on Iran instead of 'war-mongering threats.'"

About World War III

Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post on Friday: "When President Bush this week raised the specter of World War III if Iran manages to build nuclear weapons, he not only roiled the diplomatic world, he also underscored how much Iran has come to shadow the political dialogue both here in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail.

"While Iraq has faded from the Beltway debate for now, Iran has emerged as the top foreign policy topic of the moment."

AFP reported on Friday: "Bush's warning that Iran must be denied nuclear arms to avoid 'World War III' was just 'a rhetorical point,' not a prelude to Armageddon, his spokeswoman said Thursday. . . .

"'The president was not making any war plans, and he wasn't making any declarations,' said press secretary Dana Perino. 'He was using that as a rhetorical point.'"

Reality Check

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: "The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is 'like Hitler . . . a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.' For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

"Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on? . . .

"We're on a path to irreversible confrontation with a country we know almost nothing about. The United States government has had no diplomats in Iran for almost 30 years. American officials have barely met with any senior Iranian politicians or officials. We have no contact with the country's vibrant civil society. Iran is a black hole to us -- just as Iraq had become in 2003."

Who Cheney Quotes

It's fascinating to see who Cheney quotes in his speeches. Yesterday's speech included his two favorite Middle East Scholars: Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis.

"As Fouad Ajami said recently, Iraq is not yet 'a country at peace, and all its furies have not burned out, but a measure of order has begun to stick on the ground,'" Cheney said.

Ajami also said, in an astonishing Wall Street Journal op-ed in June, that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, deserved better. In an "open letter" to Bush, Ajami wrote: "Scooter Libby was a soldier in your -- our -- war in Iraq, he was chief of staff to a vice president who had become a lightning rod to the war's critics.... He can't be left behind as a casualty of a war our country had once proudly claimed as its own."

As for Lewis, here's Cheney's quote yesterday: "Dr. Bernard Lewis explained the terrorists' reasoning this way: 'During the Cold War,' Dr. Lewis wrote, 'two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: "What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?"' End quote."

First there is the content of the quote. As blogger Gregory Djerejian observes: "It's really an appallingly strange time in our country. We have a singularly powerful Vice-President (compared to any of his predecessors) -- openly quite enamored by the tactics employed by the Soviet Union -- our former arch-foe whose human rights standards we derided."

Then there is the author of the quote. As Zakaria notes, Lewis last year"wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal predicting that on Aug. 22, 2006, President Ahmadinejad was going to end the world. The date, he explained, 'is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the Prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to 'the farthest mosque,' usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world'. This would all be funny if it weren't so dangerous."

Cheney's Speech

More from the text of Cheney's speech:

The vice president noted his long association with the institute. "Most of you knew me long before anyone called me Darth Vader," he said, adding that his top national security assistant, John Hannah, was formerly the institute's deputy director.

He defended the CIA's use of interrogation techniques that many would call torture: "There's been a good deal of misinformation about the CIA detainee program, and unfair comments have been made about America's intentions and the conduct of America's intelligence officers," he said.

"The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture. We're proud of our country and what it stands for. We expect all who serve America to conduct themselves with honor."

Cheney laid down a marker that could come back to haunt him: "Success in Iraq will confirm our good intentions in the Middle East more than words alone ever could."

And he unleashed a novel argument for why the Shia Iranian government would have anything against the U.S.-supported majority-Shia government in Iraq: "Fearful of a strong, independent, Arab Shia community emerging in Iraq, one that seeks religious guidance not in Qom, Iran, but from traditional sources of Shia authority in Najaf and Karbala, the Iranian regime also aims to keep Iraq in a state of weakness that prevents Baghdad from presenting a threat to Tehran."

Blaming Iran for Iraq

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker have concluded that Shiite extremists pose a rising threat to the U.S. effort in Iraq, as the relative influence of Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq has diminished drastically because of ongoing U.S. operations."

Their "updated plan anticipates shifting the U.S. military effort to focus more on countering Shiite militias -- some backed by Iran -- that have generated new violence as they battle for power in the south and elsewhere in Iraq, said senior military and diplomatic officials familiar with the plan."

But Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek: "The Bush administration is starving for good news out of Iraq, and it may finally have some: new U.S. government statistics showing that violent attacks of all kinds are down to levels not seen since 2005. But until recently, the administration appears to have resisted acknowledging a key element of the new data, because it flies in the face of President George W. Bush's ongoing rhetorical confrontation with Iran's clerical regime. According to three senior U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, the decline in Iraq violence also includes a decrease in the number of attacks attributable to insurgents backed or armed by Iran. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to Newsweek that 'there has indeed been a drop' in such attacks, but he added that 'it's not entirely clear what the reason for that is.'"

Mullen Watch

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times that in an interview, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, "rejected the counsel of those who might urge immediate attacks inside Iran to destroy nuclear installations or to stop the flow of explosives that end up as powerful roadside bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan, killing American troops.

"With America at war in two Muslim countries, he said, attacking a third Islamic nation in the region 'has extraordinary challenges and risks associated with it.' The military option, he said, should be a last resort.

"But Admiral Mullen warned any nation, including Iran, not to 'mistake restraint for lack of commitment or lack of concern or lack of capability.' He described the Air Force and Navy as America's 'strategic reserve,' ready to carry out a full range of combat operations beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"The threat to American and allied troops from high-powered explosives from Iran, he said, should be countered by halting their flow into Iraq or Afghanistan across the borders, and with attacks on those bomb-making and bomb-planting cells inside Iraq or Afghanistan."

Bolton Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "On the eve of the 2004 presidential elections, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell secretly attempted to shift U.S. policy on Iran by telling key allies he wanted to offer 'carrots' to the Islamic Republic to halt its nuclear ambitions, former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton writes in his soon-to-be-published memoir.

"Bolton, then undersecretary of state, says that he worked hard to thwart Powell's plans -- only to discover, to his dismay, that Powell's replacement, Condoleezza Rice, would pursue the same approach in President Bush's second term."

Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The war of words against Iran grew scorching this week when President Bush declared that 'avoiding World War III' requires preventing that country from developing nuclear weapons. . . .

"[T]he escalation of American threats against Iran is unwise. It is grossly premature. It is dangerous, as it greatly increases the likelihood of accidental escalation into a preventable war. It is alarmingly ill-timed, as an isolated United States wages simultaneous ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both conflicts are going badly. And it is diplomatically counterproductive. Congress and U.S. opinion leaders should slam on the brakes -- if they can. . . .

"So why rattle the sabers now, at a moment of U.S. military weakness? In 1969, with the Vietnam War going badly, President Nixon devised a plan to spook the Soviets and the North Vietnamese into making concessions by making them think that he was just crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Nixon called it the 'madman theory.' There is speculation that the Bush administration could be trying out its version of the madman gambit by advertising Vice President Dick Cheney's alleged desire to bomb Iranian nuclear sites and Revolutionary Guard targets, in hopes of scaring Tehran into submission. The problem with the madman act, however, is that it presumes that the Iranians will react sensibly. But who wants to stake U.S. foreign policy on the wisdom of Iran's mullahs and its titular head, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a paranoid who can beat us at the madman game any day of his choosing?"


In 1991, Cheney spoke at the very same institute and offered a rousing defense of the first Gulf war -- and explained why going on to overthrow Saddam Hussein would have been a disaster.

From the transcript: "There have been significant discussions since the war ended about the proposition of whether or not we went far enough. Should we, perhaps, have gone in to Baghdad? Should we have gotten involved to a greater extent then we did? Did we leave the job in some respects unfinished? I think the answer is a resounding 'no.'

"One of the reasons we were successful from a military perspective was because we had very clear-cut military objectives. . . . And as soon as we had achieved those objectives, we stopped hostilities, on the grounds that we had in fact fulfilled our objective. . . .

"I think that the proposition of going to Baghdad is also fallacious. I think if we were going to remove Saddam Hussein we would have had to go all the way to Baghdad, we would have to commit a lot of force because I do not believe he would wait in the Presidential Palace for us to arrive. I think we'd have had to hunt him down. And once we'd done that and we'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we'd have had to put another government in its place.

"What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi'i government or a Kurdish government or Ba'athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable?

"I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it's my view that the President got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq."

Valerie Plame Watch

Valerie Plame Wilson started her book tour with an interview on "60 Minutes" with Katie Couric yesterday. CBS News reports: "Eighteen years of meticulously crafted cover were gone in an instant.

"'I can tell you all the intelligence services in the world that morning were running my name through their databases to see, did anyone by this name come in the country? When? Do we know anything about it? Where did she stay? Who did she see?' Plame Wilson says.

"Asked what the ramifications of that would be, Plame Wilson tells Couric, 'Well, it's very serious. It puts in danger, if not shuts down, the operations that I had worked on.'

"'Did you ever hear about anything that happened to anyone with whom you had contact as a result of the leak?' Couric asks.

"'Yes I have, that's all I can say.' . . .


"Asked if she thinks the president was in on this, Plame Wilson tells Couric, 'I don't know about that. But I, like most other Americans, saw President Bush say on TV that he would fire anyone from his administration found to be involved in leaking my name. It turns out the president is not a man of his word.'"

In an interview with USA Today's Richard Willing Plame complains that reporters who sought to keep the names of Karl Rove and other sources confidential were "spoon-fed" by White House officials who used anonymity to "just lie and shoot off propaganda."

The Reviews Are In

Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Readers in search of sensational revelations or new information on the substance of the Plame affair -- which ultimately resulted in the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and his conviction for perjury -- will be disappointed. . . .

"In 'Fair Game,' Plame accuses the Bush administration of 'arrogance and intolerance' and alleges that the orchestrated attack on her husband was a 'dress rehearsal' for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign to discredit Sen. John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential campaign.

"'It was classic Karl Rove: go after your enemy's strong point,' Plame contends, charging that the president's chief political advisor engineered both smears. 'In Joe's case [his strength] was that he told the truth; in Kerry's case, it was his exemplary military service.' (Rove did provide Plame with her book title, when he told a journalist that her husband's activities had made her 'fair game.')

"Plame also has harsh things to say about the reporters who were on the receiving end of the White House leaks and, later, resisted identifying their sources before a federal grand jury. She still is unable to understand why 'well-meaning but self-righteous talking heads' criticized Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald for subpoenaing and jailing reporters. 'It was the Pentagon Papers or Watergate turned on its head,' she argues. 'These reporters were allowing themselves to be exploited by the administration and were obstructing the investigation. It didn't make much ethical sense to me.'"

Janet Maslin writes in the New York Times: "Citing the dismay voiced by Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, that such loose talk about an undercover agent might actually be criminal, she writes angrily: 'If he was so surprised that his actions might have adverse national security implications, then he's not smart enough to work in the White House. That goes for all the officials who thought that using my name as catnip was just playing the Washington game as usual.'"

Chuck Leddy writes in the Boston Globe: "Plame describes pervasive efforts to shut her and her husband up. . . . 'Their tactics would have made Joseph McCarthy proud: fearmongering, defamation of character, shameless disregard for the truth, and distortions of reality.'"

Gone Fishing

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush spent a crisp fall Saturday gingerly balancing a tiny screech owl on a gloved hand at a wildlife refuge and casting for rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay. . . .

"It was all part of an effort to burnish his conservation credentials while announcing new initiatives that he said would protect migrating birds and two fish species, red drum and striped bass, prized by anglers."

Bush went fishing with Chris and Melissa Fischer, two of the hosts of " Offshore Adventures" on ESPN.

Loven writes: "As Bush mimed catching a big fish for the cameras, Melissa Fischer reeled one in from the bay's choppy waters." Bush caught nothing.

Here is the text of Bush's remarks. Here is the executive order he signed.

John Heilprin reported for the Associated Press that state officials said the order "has little to no practical effect and likely will inflame tensions between recreational anglers and commercial fishermen, by siding with the sports fishermen who don't fish for a living."

After signing the order, Bush went to visit the Cheneys at their weekend getaway on the Eastern Shore.

Before that, Bush mangled a joke at Cheney's expense. Said Bush: "I love to fish. And the good news there's a lot of good fishing here is because the Secret Service won't let me go hunting with him." (Cheney, of course, accidentally shot a companion while hunting quail last year.)

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart channels Bush on "World War III": "You either agree with my position, or you're looking to have a thermonuclear reaction bake your shadow instantly into the sidewalk."

Cartoon Watch

Steve Sack on Bush the lame duck; Dan Wasserman on Bush and the Dalai Lama; Mike Luckovich on Halloween at the White House; Paul Combs on Bush's relationship with the press; and Garry Trudeau kicks off a week in the White House briefing room.

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