Cheney Lives!

Cheney's star may have faded at the White House, but his doctrine of preventive war remains Bush policy. Does this mean Iran is next?

"Cheney’s Influence Lessens in Second Term." Let’s hope that Washington Post headline is accurate. As evidence, the Post cites the embryonic deal the State Department struck last week to suspend North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid. As late as 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney blocked a North Korea deal, and its apparent consummation now, sources quoted by the Post conclude, indicates that his influence over policy has waned.

There are reasons. From worsening Bush's credibility on Iraq ("Saddam is reconstituting his nuclear weapons") to recently demolishing a possible administration deal with Senate Democrats on Social Security funding, Cheney has done his worst to make the Bush presidency synonymous with failure in foreign policy and deceit at home. At this writing, the jury in the perjury trial of Lewis Libby is still out. Libby, Cheney's former chief-of-staff, is accused of lying to a grand jury over his part in revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had exposed Cheney's claim that Saddam was "reconstituting" his nuclear weapons program as based on fraudulent documents. Libby may or may not be found guilty. Regardless, as prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzerald said in his closing statement to the jury, "Plamegate" has "left a cloud over the White House" and over Cheney and over the origins of the war in Iraq. Cheney armed the explosive charge that Bush lied us into war.

Cheney may have lost on North Korea, but the question of the hour is whether he will win on Iran. An anonymous source quoted in a Post story from several years ago said of Cheney, "He wants them dead"—meaning the leaders of North Korea and Iran. Gripped by idée fixe and damn-the-facts conviction, Cheney doesn’t change his mind—a source of his power over President Bush, whom Paul Krugman plausibly characterizes as an "unconfident bully." Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice used her close relationship with President Bush to bypass Cheney on North Korea. Assuming Cheney doesn’t recapture Bush’s ear on North Korea and undermine Rice’s deal, will Bush feel (or be manipulated by Cheney to feel) that he owes the vice president one—an attack on Iran to make up for the disappointment of his dark hopes for North Korea? According to Ron Suskind’s reporting in The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11 (2006), as the war with Iraq (for which Cheney schemed and plotted and—the record suggests—lied) approached in early 2003, the CIA took to calling him "Edgar," for Charlie McCarthy’s ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Where Cheney stopped and Bush began will be grist for historians.

But Suskind’s book, like Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, contains anecdotes that suggest there was—is?——truth to the one-liner that George Bush is only one heart-attack away from being president. "What about the notion that Cheney is the all-powerful vice president who controls the president?" Woodward asked then-Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Cheney’s long-time friend, in an interview conducted last July. "That’s nonsense," Rumsfeld replied. "[T]he president is the president." He asserted that Cheney is careful "not to take strong positions when the president’s in the room that could conceivably position him contrary to the president"; although he "asks good questions," the Vice President "doesn’t put the president in a corner or take away his options." As Woodward astutely observed, "I wondered how Cheney’s questions or comments could put the president in a corner or take away his options. Presumably if it was nonsense that Cheney was all-powerful he would be in no position to do either."

Cheney has not always been so deferential to Bush, Suskind reveals. "In the spring of 2002, Bush asked Cheney to pull back a little at big meetings, to give the president more room…to take charge," he writes. "Bush asked Cheney not to offer him advice in crowded rooms." Cheney not only damaged Bush’s confidence at meetings. In a revelation based on Saudi sources, Suskind asserts that Cheney kept vital information from Bush, making him look like a fool to Crown Prince Abudullah of Saudi Arabia, who muttered after a 2002 meeting with the president at his Crawford, Texas, ranch that Bush didn’t know his brief. He didn’t know it because the "Saudi packet" listing the agenda items the Crown Prince wanted to discuss with Bush "had been diverted to Dick Cheney’s office." Bush "never got it, never read it," Suskind writes. "In what may have been the most important and contentious foreign policy meeting of his presidency, George W. Bush was unaware of what the Saudis hoped to achieve in traveling to Crawford." On that occasion, at least, the president was not the president. "Edgar" was.

Cheney’s primary influence over Bush is to have lent desperate logic to Bush’s fears of potential, even distant, dangers—fears ineluctable in a president who was on vacation, whose government was on vacation, when the first foreign attack on the American homeland since the war of 1812 occurred. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and preventive war against hostile states suspected of harboring terrorists or developing weapons of mass destruction, first announced by the president in June, 2002, was inspired by Cheney’s "One Percent Doctrine." In a meeting shortly after 9/11, following a CIA briefing about the chances that Pakistani scientists had passed nuclear know-how or material to al Qaeda, Cheney said that if there was "a one percent chance… we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." "It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of the evidence," he added. "It’s about our response."

Cheney’s star may have faded at the White House, but his fearful doctrine of preventive war remains Bush policy. Cheney’s National Security Advisor, John Hannah, recently told a foreign diplomat that 2007 "is the year of Iran" for the administration, hinting that, if Cheney has his way, the United States will soon launch another preventive war. After all, "He wants them dead."