Cheney Under Siege

Has U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney become so much of an albatross around his boss’ neck that he will have to go?

While that question may appear a bit premature at the moment – speculation about the tenure of President’s George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, remains on the front burner – it has loomed over the White House since Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was indicted 10 days ago.

Libby has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the "outing" of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, whose husband accused the administration of taking the U.S. to war under false pretenses.

But Cheney’s fate rests less with whether Libby tells prosecutors that his former boss encouraged him to leak the operative’s identity to prominent Washington journalists than with the White House’s calculation that the most powerful vice president in U.S.. history has become a serious political liability, both for Bush and for increasingly panicked Republican lawmakers desperate to retain control of Congress in next year’s elections.

Cheney’s public approval ratings have dropped to an all-time low, according to the most recent Gallup soundings, with a majority of respondents believing that the vice president at least knew about Libby’s actions. In his latest National Journal column, public opinion analyst William Schneider asserted that the president now has a "Cheney Problem."

A big part of that problem is Iraq, and particularly Cheney’s prewar role as the most aggressive administration official to promote the invasion. With two-thirds of the public now believing that invading Iraq was a mistake, and more than half saying that the administration "deliberately misled the American people" about the reasons for the invasion, Cheney is particularly vulnerable.

According to Newsweek, Cheney’s power has already shriveled to virtually nil. It quoted "a senior official sympathetic to Cheney’s policies" last week as saying, "You can say that the influence of the vice president is going to decrease, but it’s hard to decrease from zero."

But that is almost surely a gross, perhaps even deliberate, exaggeration. Even if he has lost influence on foreign policy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, he clearly continues to exercise strong, if not decisive, influence on issues that he considers priorities, such as Iran, North Korea, and ensuring that the executive branch has virtually absolute powers to wage the "war on terror" in any way it sees fit.

Cheney reportedly played a key role in vetoing a proposed trip by Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Christopher Hill to Pyongyang in advance of this month’s round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear program. Similarly, a State Department proposal last month to resume directs talks with Tehran two and a half years after Cheney helped break them off was dropped after the vice president indicated his adamant opposition.

And a sharp loss of influence would have made it impossible for Cheney to forcefully argue in a meeting with Republican senators last week that U.S. national security would be at unacceptable risk if the CIA – and not just the U.S. military – were bound by pending legislation that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of detainees captured in the "war on terror."

Cheney’s aggressive opposition to the so-called "McCain Amendment," which earned him the title of "Vice President for Torture" from the Washington Post‘s editorial board, offers some measure of his confidence that he retains Bush’s ear. It also reveals his contempt for his Republican audience in Congress, the vast majority of whom had voted for the torture ban in the first of a series of revolts against the White House that began last month.

The McCain Amendment would prohibit the use of "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" as defined by the U.S. Constitution and any interrogation technique that is not authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which was drafted to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

Bush has backed Cheney on this question, even while he insisted that "we do not torture." Responding to press questions in Panama Monday, the president asserted, "[A]nything we do [to protect the American people] … any activity we conduct, is within the law."

However, the question remains whether Bush’s backing will continue to be as unconditional as it has been to date, particularly given the unprecedented array of forces that appear to be lining up against the vice president.

Consider, for example, an account in the Washington Post Monday about the internal administration battle over the McCain Amendment. According to the account, Cheney’s position is increasingly opposed by other administration officials, "including Cabinet members, political appointees, and Republican lawmakers who once stood firmly behind the administration on all matters concerning terrorism."

Nor is it only the State Department, which fought Cheney on the treatment of detainees during the first term as well, that opposes him now. The Post named the deputy national security adviser for democracy, neoconservative Elliot Abrams, and his boss, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, as arguing against the vice president.

Even more remarkable was the reported opposition of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s new deputy, Gordon England. An unnamed State Department official described Cheney’s camp as a "shrinking island."

England’s position on the detainee issue, which reflects that of the uniformed military, is particularly damaging to Cheney’s position because it suggests that Rumsfeld, an acutely sensitive political animal in his own right, has himself deserted the vice president on a key issue at a delicate moment.

Last month, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, accused Cheney and Rumsfeld of jointly leading a "cabal" that hijacked U.S. foreign policy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against New York and the Pentagon. He charged that the two men, who worked closely together as White House chief of staff and defense secretary, respectively, in the Gerald Ford administration 30 years ago, of circumventing the formal decision-making process in order to get their way.

Wilkerson elaborated on that theme during an interview last week in which he suggested that authorization for harsh treatment of detainees originated with Cheney.

"[T]here was a visible audit trail from the vice president’s office through the secretary of defense down to the commanders in the field" authorizing practices that led to the abuse of detainees, he told National Public Radio, adding that Cheney’s new chief of staff, David Addington, played a particularly important role.

While the detainee issue in itself is unlikely to bring down the vice president, growing and aggressive Democratic pressure to investigate the administration’s use of prewar intelligence on Iraq – and particularly the role played by Cheney and his "cabal" in presenting and allegedly manipulating it – offers yet another battleground in which the vice president will find himself playing defense.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.