Cheney’s mask is slipping
WASHINGTON – In the 2000 elections, he was the thoughtful, gray-haired Washington veteran who reassured nervous voters that candidate George W Bush would indeed have adult supervision if he became president of the United States.
Calm, if intensely purposeful and focused, always substantive, and with virtually unmatched experience, Dick Cheney, who already at age 34 had served as White House chief of staff under president Gerald Ford and later as defense secretary under Bush’s father during the Gulf War in 1991, embodied competence and gravitas. In addition to his government service, he had worked for several years as the chief executive officer of one of the country’s biggest and most profitable corporations.
You could trust him to round out Bush’s own inexperience and curb his boyish
enthusiasms, especially, perhaps, for Texas wildcatters, tax cuts, Christian
fundamentalism, or baseball. His was the steady hand that communicated good
old mainstream conservative Republicanism.
Now, three years later, the image of Vice President Dick Cheney is changing. Already tarnished by questions surrounding the huge no-bid reconstruction contracts won by his former company, Halliburton, in which he retains a financial interest, as well as his refusal to disclose to Congress what meetings he held during his formulation of Bush’s energy policy, Cheney is increasingly seen as a serious rightwing extremist and ideologue, and by far
the most powerful number two in US history.
As much as Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative advisors have become the lightning rod for criticism over the Iraq war and the administration’s hubris, Cheney appears to have acted as their principal patron and advocate with Bush himself, and more than any other official except perhaps Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the driving force within the administration for war with Iraq.
Although long in the making, the secretive vice president’s image as zealot appears to have impressed itself in the media just in the past two weeks.
In particular, his September 14 appearance on the Sunday television news program, Meet the Press, when he not only defended the administration’s pre-war optimism about Iraq, but also revived two stories long dismissed by the intelligence community – that one of the September 11 hijackers had met with an Iraqi spy at a Prague cafe just five months before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon and that Iraq sponsored the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – has attracted unprecedented attention.
The Prague story, which apparently rests on a report to Czech intelligence by a single «Arab student» who claimed five months after the alleged meeting to have witnessed and overheard it, had been pushed primarily by Cheney and several neo-conservatives outside the administration, notably Richard Perle and James Woolsey, since it first surfaced in November, 2001.
After an exhaustive investigation, US intelligence agencies concluded a year before the March invasion of Iraq that the hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was in the US at the time of the alleged meeting. Moreover, the Iraqi spy, who has been in US custody in Iraq since July, has apparently failed to back up the story despite, no doubt, repeated suggestions that he do so.
According to a major account in the Washington Post on Monday, Cheney and his top aide, I Lewis «Scooter» Libby, continued to press the story on the administration long after the intelligence community had dismissed it, even insisting on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council last February on Iraq’s defiance of the council’s resolutions that it be included in Powell’s indictment.
Powell kept it out, and 10 days ago, in a major blow to Cheney’s credibility, Bush himself told reporters that the administration had «no evidence» that Saddam Hussein played any role at all in the September 11 attacks.
Cheney’s suspicions – and their lack of any grounding in reality – have now become fair game in the media. «Cheney in Wonderland» was how the Los Angeles Times titled one editorial, while accounts in Newsweek and the Post have gone to unusual lengths to debunk Cheney’s theories.
There had long been hints that Cheney was not quite the reasonable and deliberate presence that he so effectively conveyed throughout his long career.
At the beginning of the administration, it was he who championed Rumsfeld, his former boss in the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations, for the defense post and then insisted, over fierce objections by Secretary of State Colin Powell, on placing Wolfowitz in the number two position at the Pentagon.
He also insisted, again over Powell’s misgivings, on making ultra-unilateralist John Bolton, then vice president of the American Enterprise Institute (where Cheney’s spouse, Lynne Cheney, is a fellow), Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
Bolton – praised by the ultra-rightwing former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman as «the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon», the final, apocalyptic battlefield between good and evil prophesied in the Bible – told the Wall Street Journal last year that the «happiest moment in his government service» came when the US pulled out of
the treaty creating the International Criminal Court.
Cheney also made Libby his own chief of staff and national security advisor. A hard core neo-conservative who had worked with Wolfowitz in 1992 on a controversial draft strategy that called for global US military dominance that was strongly denounced by the Republican foreign policy establishment at the time, Libby later served as general counsel to the Cox Commission, a Congressional body convened to investigate alleged Chinese spying and
acquisition of advanced-weapons technology. Its final report was almost universally derided as flimsy, exaggerated and inaccurate by both technical and China experts.
Libby also represented Marc Rich, a billionaire fugitive who reportedly enjoys very close ties to Israeli intelligence and whose pardon by Bill Clinton in the last days of his presidency became a major scandal, but one quickly hushed by the incoming Bush administration. The fact that Rich had renounced his US citizenship after his conviction for tax evasion made the
pardon – and Libby’s efforts to obtain one – particularly galling for many conservatives and made Libby himself a particularly curious choice for Cheney’s chief aide.
Cheney also reportedly played a key role in the appointment of another controversial neo-conservative, Elliott Abrams, to head the Middle East office on the National Security Council. Abrams, a strong rightwing critic of the Oslo peace process, has identified closely with positions of the Likud Party in Israel. Cheney himself told Israel’s defense minister in a
meeting in early 2002 that he thought Palestinian President Yasser Arafat «should be hanged».
At the same time, in what was widely interpreted as an effort to intimidate the Near East bureau of the State Department, which has generally favored a more even-handed position toward Israelis and Palestinians, Cheney’s daughter, Elizabeth, was appointed by the White House to serve as deputy assistant secretary of state of that office in early 2002.
And it was also Libby and Cheney who reportedly visited the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) several times in the run-up to the war in Iraq in what was taken as pressure on CIA analysts to take a darker view of Saddam’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction than what was reflected in the agency’s reports.
In spite of the change in Cheney’s media image and the questions raised about the propriety of his ties with Halliburton and the soundness of his judgment, there is little indication that Cheney’s influence with Bush has been reduced.
While Powell appeared to have been given the authority to negotiate a new Security Council resolution that would dilute Washington’s authority over reconstruction and political affairs in Baghdad earlier this months, Cheney led an internal effort to retain full control, even as Powell was negotiating in New York, according to several knowledgeable sources. «He has
been far more inflexible than Rumsfeld,» said one.