Cheney's Unforgivable Egotism

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; 1:22 PM

That President Bush and Vice President Cheney live in a bubble of flattery and delusion, largely sheltered from the people who are actually suffering from the consequences of their actions, is not exactly news.

But perhaps nothing has crystallized their detachment and self-involvement so vividly as Cheney's assertion yesterday that when it comes to the war in Iraq, it is Bush -- not the soldiers and Marines who fight and die, or their families -- who is bearing the biggest burden.

And in an era where failing to support the troops is the ultimate political sin, Cheney's breezy dismissal of their sacrifice -- heck, they're volunteers, and dying goes with the territory -- was jaw-dropping even by the vice president's own tone-deaf standards.

Does Cheney really believe that Bush's burden is so great? The president tells people he's sleeping just fine, thank you, and in public appearances appears upbeat beyond all reason.

Or does Cheney simply have no idea what it means to go to war? He and Bush, after all, famously avoided putting themselves in the line of fire when it was their time.

Or are they just so wrapped up in themselves they can't see how ridiculous it is to even suggest such a thing?

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview yesterday with Martha Raddatz of ABC News -- his second in less than a week. Here's a video clip.

Raddatz: "Mr. Vice President, I want to start with the milestone today of 4,000 dead in Iraq, Americans, and just what effect you think that has on the country. Your thoughts on that?"

Cheney: "Well, it obviously brings home, I think for a lot of people, the cost that's involved in the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. It places a special burden, obviously, on the families. We recognize, I think -- it's a reminder of the extent to which we're blessed with families who have sacrificed as they have. The President carries the biggest burden, obviously; he's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans. But we are fortunate to have the group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us. You wish nobody ever lost their life, but unfortunately it's one of those things that go with living in the world we live in. Sometimes you have to commit military force, and when you do, there are casualties."

PBS's Tavis Smiley asked retired Gen. Wesley Clark about Cheney's comment last night. Clark's response: "Well, I guess you could say he does bear an enormous burden of guilt and responsibility, for misdirecting the resources of the United States and for the travesty of going to war in Iraq . . . But that's not a burden that's anything like the burden these families bear when their loved ones are overseas, and they suffer losses, or they come back home and they've got post-traumatic stress disease and other problems, when the little kids don't recognize the parents when they come in the door because of the frequent deployments and so forth. This is an entirely different kind of burden. So I think that Vice President Cheney is not being fair to the men and women who serve. He should recognize the enormous sacrifices they're making."

Bush's Peace of Mind

This isn't the first time Bush White House officials have said things that suggest they just don't get what they've done or how lucky they are, relatively.

Last week, in a videoconference with U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, Bush said that he envied them. Tabassum Zakaria of Reuters quoted Bush as saying: "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."

Last September, Bush told military bloggers that he wished he could be alongside the troops in Iraq -- except that he's too old (see my column, Bush's Battlefield Envy).

At a June 14, 2007 White House briefing, then-press secretary Tony Snow insisted that Bush was on the front lines of the war "every day."

In April 2007, first lady Laura Bush asserted " no one suffers more" than the president and she do when watching television footage of the carnage in Iraq.

And in January 2007, when PBS's Jim Lehrer asked the president about the notion of shared sacrifice, Bush responded: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war."

Many presidential observers are amazed at how little this stuff seems to get to Bush.

People magazine asked Bush in December 2006 if he had trouble sleeping. As Karen Travers blogged for ABC News, his response was: "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

That echoed statements Bush made in June 2005 to board members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "I'd say I'd spend most of my time worrying about right now people losing their life in Iraq. Both Americans and Iraqis," he said. But then he added: "You know, I don't worry all that much, other than what I just described to you. I attribute that to . . . I've got peace of mind. . . . I'm sleeping pretty good. Seriously. I get asked that. There's times when I hadn't been. I've got peace of mind."

Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard just over a year ago: "Bush's relentlessly upbeat demeanor, which he flaunts at press conferences and other public events, infuriates his political opponents and much of the mainstream media. They want him to act like the broken man they think he should be. Sorry, but he's a healthy man, mentally and physically. He's bolstered by his religious faith, his sense of mission, his scorn for elite opinion, and what an aide calls 'his really good physical shape.' Exercise and sleep help to 'keep his spirits high,' the aide says."

Yesterday, as the American military death toll in Iraq passed 4,000, Bush's first public appearance was at the annual Easter Egg Roll, where he appeared in high spirits. Today he participated in a photo op with two bass-fishing champions. "There's nothing better than fishing," he said.

In between, however, he did say something about the war.

The Coverage

Karen DeYoung and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "As the American military death toll in Iraq reached 4,000, President Bush conferred yesterday with top U.S. officials in Washington and in Baghdad and vowed in a public statement that the outcome of the war "will merit the sacrifice."

"Bush held a two-hour videoconference with Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Petraeus reiterated his plan to halt U.S. troop withdrawals, begun late last fall, at the end of July. At that point, he has said, he will "evaluate" whether Iraqi forces and a reduced number of U.S. troops can maintain the lower levels of violence. . . .

"Petraeus has offered no guarantee that conditions will allow further withdrawals before Bush leaves office. . . .

"After speaking with Petraeus and Crocker yesterday morning from the White House, Bush attended a briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department on cooperation between military and civilian officials in Iraq and elsewhere. In a statement to reporters, he spoke of the U.S. civilians who have died in Iraq and said: 'I will vow so long as I am president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain.'"

Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times that "it now appears likely that any decision on major reductions in American troops from Iraq will be left to the next president. That ensures that the question over what comes next will remain in the center of the presidential campaign through Election Day. . . .

"Mr. Bush, according to officials, could decide to make no further reductions in troops after the departure this summer of the last of the additional troops, leaving roughly 140,000. That number includes the 15 combat brigades in Iraq before the troop increase, as well as additional support, training and other units that are expected to stay. . . .

"[O]fficials said that Mr. Bush and General Petraeus, recognizing public and Congressional wariness about the toll of the war, would publicly hold out the possibly of withdrawing more troops, but only if conditions allowed it. Mr. Bush, in particular, is eager to end his presidency with the appearance that things are getting better in Iraq."

Here's Bush's statement yesterday, implicitly acknowledging, while at the same time diminishing, the day's milestone: "I'm fully aware that folks who have worked in the State Department lost their lives and -- in Iraq, along with our military folks. And on this day of reflection, I offer our deepest sympathies to their families. I hope their families know that the citizens pray for their comfort and strength, whether they were the first one who lost their life in Iraq or recently lost their lives in Iraq -- that every life is precious in our sight.

"And I guess my one thought I wanted to leave with those who still hurt is that one day people will look back at this moment in history and say, thank God there were courageous people willing to serve, because they laid the foundations for peace for generations to come; that I have vowed in the past, and I will vow so long as I'm President, to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain, that, in fact, there is a outcome that will merit the sacrifice that civilian and military alike have made; that our strategy going forward will be aimed at making sure that we achieve victory and, therefore, America becomes more secure and these young democracies survive, and peace more likely as we head into the 21st century."

Opinion Watch

A lot of folks are still marveling at Cheney's earlier interview with Raddatz.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Dick Cheney, who in 2005 told us that the insurgency was ' in the last throes, if you will,' was asked last week about polls showing that two-thirds of Americans don't think the fight in Iraq is worth it. Cheney's response: 'So?'

"At least Cheney was being candid, if breathtakingly arrogant. He and George W. Bush have never cared what the American people think about this elective war. A little bamboozling was necessary at the beginning -- overblown claims about weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds and being 'greeted as liberators' by smiling Iraqi children. Once that hurdle was surmounted, and once Saddam Hussein's government had been destroyed, there was essentially nothing anyone could do to force the Bush administration to bring the war to an end."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "Barring a miracle, there is nothing to stop this total from hitting 4,500, 5,000 - or beyond. The White House curtly noted the latest milestone as 'a sober moment,' but there is no sign the president is changing his stubborn, fruitless direction. To him, and an ever-shrinking pack, this war is somehow winnable.

"Last week, as the body count climbed, a news interviewer asked Vice President Dick Cheney about polls showing two-thirds of Americans thought the war wasn't worth fighting. His answer: 'So?'

"This arrogance, plus the rising death figure, should push the war to the front of any agenda about this nation's future. It remains the central topic by any measure of lives, national reputation or financial cost."

Meanwhile, In Iraq

Sholnn Freeman writes in The Washington Post: "Followers of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr launched a civil strike Monday to protest raids and mass arrests by Iraq's security forces, underscoring the growing frustrations of Sadr's group, which U.S. military officials say is playing a key role in keeping down violence in Iraq."

Abu Ghraib Revisited

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris write in the New Yorker: "The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President's office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments."

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the shame of Abu Ghraib will forever stain George Bush and his top aides. For them, the photos from Abu Ghraib are not pictures. They're mirrors."

More Cheney

Cheney's ostensibly travelled to the Middle East to encourage peace. But in his interview with Raddatz and in a roundtable interview yesterday with travel pool reporters, the vice president had a hard time identifying any recent forward movement -- and further encouraged speculation that he is fomenting some kind of action against Iran.

Raddatz: "The President always talks about two steps forward, one step back; that's what happens in the Mideast. I --"

Cheney: "I think that's right."

Raddatz: "I can't see the two steps forward. Are there two steps forward?"

Cheney: "Well, I think if you look, for example, at the President, I think, broke new ground when he came out, and subsequently has continued to support the proposition of two states, a Palestinian state. No other President has ever supported that publicly, he has, the idea of two states side by side, Israelis and Palestinians living in peace with one another. That's a step forward."

And in the roundtable interview, regarding Iran:

Q: "[Y]ou said, when you were standing with Prime Minister Olmert, that you would never ask the Israelis to do anything that would threaten their own security. And I'm wondering, if they came to you and the President and said, we need to strike Iran to maintain our own security, would you try to stop them?"

Cheney: "That's a hypothetical question, Steve."

Q: "Did they come to you and -- (laughter.)"

Cheney: "I don't do hypotheticals."

Cheney on the Democrats and Iraq

Cheney in the Raddatz interview: "Now when I hear my friends in the States, candidates and so forth, wannabees, announce that the solution in Iraq is to withdraw, take our forces out, I say that is exactly what happened in Afghanistan that produced a safe haven that generated the terrorists that came and killed 3,000 Americans. We don't have the luxury of saying we don't care what happens in Iraq, or we don't care what happens in Afghanistan; we have to be engaged in that part of the world. We've got to work with others so that they can control their own sovereign territory. But the idea that we can walk away from Iraq is, I think, terribly damaging on its face.

"And to say that, well, that's the only way we can get the Iraqis to take on responsibility, I don't believe that's the case. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have stood up alongside us and enlisted in their security services, have run in elections, have taken on responsible post, been threatened with assassination and car bombs, operated under very difficult circumstances. And all of that --"

Raddatz: "So a candidate that would do that, you believe is -- you believe is putting the homeland at risk?"

Cheney: "I do, and is seriously, seriously misguided. A belief that somehow we can walk away from Iraq, and it won't have lasting consequences --"

Raddatz: "Are you talking about Barack Obama?"

Cheney: "I'm talking about any candidate for high office who believes the solution to our problem in that part of the world is to walk away from the commitments that we've made in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere."


Raddatz also gave Cheney a chance to recast his "So?" response regarding public sentiment against the war. He declined -- instead telling her about how President Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon was terribly unpopular, but is now seen more positively.

Said Cheney: "I have the same strong conviction the issues we're dealing with today -- the global war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that all of the tough calls the President has had to make, that 30 years from now it will be clear that he made the right decisions, and that the effort we mounted was the right one, and that if we had listened to the polls, we would have gotten it wrong. You can disagree with me, but that's what I believe; I know that's what he believes. My comments the other day should be taken in that light."

Vice Presidential Power

In the roundtable interview, Cheney was asked whether he's set a new precedent for vice presidential power.

Cheney: "I don't know, in the sense that it's always -- I think, to the extent that I've looked back at it, watched several Vice Presidents operate -- it's a very sort of personal kind of thing, with the President, the time in which he governs. George Bush really is the one who has made this possible, who wanted me not because he was worried about carrying Wyoming. He was going to get Wyoming whether or not I was on the ticket.

"But as he said at the time, he wanted me to sign on as a member of the team, somebody who would be an active participant in the governing process, and he's kept his word. He's been great at it, and the relationship has prospered now for more than seven years because of the understandings we came to. There's no contract, job description, being Vice President. . .

Q: "So do you think we're going to see a similar --"

Cheney: " . . . You can conceive of a situation in the future where, for various reasons, we'll end up with a more conventional kind of arrangement. It will depend upon why the Vice President is selected, what qualities it is the President is looking for, the time in which they govern."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Cheney's lack of presidential aspirations has been a unique aspect of his two-term vice presidency.

"'People said this is a source of his strength. He doesn't have a different agenda from the president, but there's a flip side that I think is troubling,' said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who has written extensively on the vice presidency. 'A vice president who is not looking to succeed to the presidency is not politically accountable.'

"Cheney can afford to make the bulk of his public appearances in Republican-friendly forums: Conservative talk radio shows, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington that leans right, or military installations....

"'If he were running for president, he would have to be out there talking to a cross section of the American public,' Goldstein said. 'I'm very hopeful that both parties' presidential nominees will pick somebody presidential and give them the accessibility and responsibility that the nation's second officer ought to have.'"

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