Amid growing pressure to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and mounting charges by Democrats that senior administration officials misled the nation into war there, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to have taken charge of defending his boss and taking on the critics.
In his second public appearance in less than a week, Cheney told a specially invited audience at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Monday that suggestions "by some U.S. senators" that President George W. Bush or any member of his administration "purposely misled the American people" before the war was "dishonest and reprehensible."
"The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false," he said. "This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."
But in what was a clear attempt to refocus the debate in a less partisan way, Cheney, who left AEI without taking any questions from the audience, focused more on the possibly disastrous consequences of a premature U.S. withdrawal that he predicted would bring al-Qaeda to power in Iraq.
"Would the United States and other free nations be better off or worse off with [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, [Osama] bin Laden, and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri in control of Iraq?" he asked. "Would be we safer or less safe with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?"
As indicated by his hasty departure from the podium in what could only be considered the friendliest audience imaginable, Cheney’s leadership and visibility in the administration’s counteroffensive represent something of a gamble.
Not only have the vice president’s public approval ratings fallen further and faster than Bush’s in recent months according to one recent poll, only 19 percent of respondents said they held a "favorable" opinion of the vice president but his office has also been identified by some former officials, as well as Democrats, as being the focal point for the manipulation of intelligence before the war.
Cheney’s strong opposition, which he has so far failed to discuss publicly, to pending legislation that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists has also made him a lightning rod for growing numbers of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Cheney’s appearance Monday was the latest in a series over the past 10 days by top U.S. officials, including Bush himself, Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. The purpose was twofold: to rebut growing charges that the administration manipulated the prewar intelligence on former President Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs and ties to al-Qaeda to rally the country to war, and to counter growing pressure in Congress to begin withdrawing substantial numbers of troops of Iraq after next month’s elections.
While the two are not directly related, recent public opinion polls show that as a majority of the U.S. public has come to believe that the administration did indeed exaggerate the intelligence, a slightly greater majority has come to favor withdrawing U.S. troops sooner rather than later.
The administration was caught off guard early last week after a majority of Republican senators joined Democrats in voting for a resolution that requires it to establish benchmarks for transferring security functions to Iraqis during 2006 and report on progress towards meeting those benchmarks.
While that was widely interpreted as a Republican vote of little confidence in Bush’s handling of the war, passions reached a high point late last week after a senior Democratic hawk, Rep. John "Jack" Murtha, called for Washington to withdraw its roughly 150,000 troops from Iraq over a six-month period beginning after the Dec. 15 elections. Murtha’s plan would leave a "quick-reaction" force and an "over-the-horizon" Marine presence to prevent al-Qaeda or its affiliates from taking over Iraq or using its territory.
The administration and Republican lawmakers reacted initially with fury, accusing the highly decorated Marine combat veteran of "cutting and running" and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
After a raucous debate in the House of Representatives over these attacks on Nov. 18, however, party leaders appeared to realize that taking on someone with Murtha’s record and stature was a fool’s errand, as an unnamed Republican aide told the Wall Street Journal. "If the House of Representatives want to make Jack Murtha the face of the Democratic Party," he said, "then Republicans will really be trounced next year."
That appeared to be the assessment by the White House as well. By Sunday, Bush himself was calling Murtha a "fine man, a good man" and insisted that the pros and cons of withdrawal constituted a legitimate subject of debate.
In his AEI address, Cheney followed the same line. Murtha, he said, was "a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he’s taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."
The rest of his speech, however, was boilerplate Republican fire and brimstone, directed particularly against critics who charge that the administration hyped the prewar intelligence and against the "self-defeating pessimism" of those who favor withdrawal.
"The [terrorists’] only chance for victory is for us to walk away from the fight," he said. "They have contempt for our values, they doubt our strength, and they believe that America will lose our nerve and let down our guard," citing a letter purportedly written by the group’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and allegedly intercepted by U.S. forces last July.
"But this nation has made a decision; we will not retreat in the face of brutality, and we will never live at the mercy of tyrants or terrorists," he declared.
Consistent with previous attacks on the critics, Cheney argued that both Democrats and Republicans agreed at the time that Congress voted to authorize military action against Hussein in October 2002 that Iraq’s WMD programs constituted a "threat," particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks.
But, unlike recent attacks, he did not assert that lawmakers in Congress had seen the same intelligence that the administration had before the war, a particularly inflammatory charge that has been strongly rejected by Democrats, much of the media, and even some Republicans in recent days.
And while he insisted that the administration had handled the intelligence in good faith, he confined his remarks solely to the prewar assessment of Hussein’s WMD programs, omitting any mention of his own repeated assertions, long rejected by U.S. intelligence agencies, that Hussein worked closely with al-Qaeda, possibly in preparing or sponsoring the 9/11 attacks themselves.
Cheney’s decision to harp more on the prospect of an al-Qaeda takeover of Iraq suggests that he and his neoconservative supporters believe that prospect to be the strongest barrier to a total collapse of their Iraq policy. In a series of articles and media appearances over the last several days, prominent neoconservatives, such as AEI fellow Richard Perle, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, have made the same argument.
"What would be intolerable would be to lose to the terrorists in Iraq," wrote Kristol and another prominent neoconservative, Robert Kagan, in The Weekly Standard‘s lead editorial this week. "Immediate withdrawal from Iraq is a prescription for catastrophe."
At the same time, the fact that the war’s defenders have moved so quickly to this argument is testimony to how swiftly the political climate has changed here.
(Inter Press Service)