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Cheney Trips Up

From the April 1, 2002 issue: The vice president's Middle East expedition didn't help the war on terror.

3:20 PM, Mar 22, 2002 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Which is precisely what the vice president should have done on this trip. Why didn't he? A year and a half ago, Tim Russert asked Cheney if he ever regretted not taking Saddam out during the Gulf War. "The fact of the matter is," Cheney told Russert,

"the only way you could have done that would be to go to Baghdad and occupy Iraq. If we'd done that, the U.S. would have been all alone. We would not have had the support of . . . the Arab nations that fought alongside us in Kuwait. . . . Conversations I had with leaders in the region afterwards--they all supported the decision that was made not to go to Baghdad. They were concerned that we not get into a position where we shifted instead of being the leader of an international coalition to roll back Iraqi aggression to one in which we were an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world taking down governments."

The Arab leaders, of course, feel pretty much the same way today. At some point, the Bush administration is going to have to turn them around. But appeasing their impossible demands for renewing a dead peace process is not going to do the trick.

Unfortunately, the vice president still seems to believe that success lies in creating the closest possible relationship with the Saudi royal family. Cheney was pleased to report that his dinner conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah was "one of the warmest sessions I have ever had, frankly, in Saudi Arabia." That's too bad. What's needed is a frosty session with the Saudi royal family--the funders and supporters of the Taliban, of radical anti-American Islam around the world, and the rulers of a kingdom that produced 15 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers, whose newspapers reprint the Jewish blood libel, and which refuses even now to let the United States use key military facilities to conduct the war in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, President Bush seems to see things more clearly. There was an interesting moment at the Thursday morning press conference at the White House. A reporter asked Cheney whether the Arabs would support strong action against Iraq, and Cheney responded with his line about how he had only gone "out there to consult with them, seek their advice and counsel." At that point Bush intervened, unbidden, to make a very different point. Cheney's trip, Bush insisted, was aimed at making the Arabs understand that "this is an administration that when we say we're going to do something, we mean it; that we are resolved to fight the war on terror . . . ; that we understand history has called us into action, and we're not going to miss this opportunity to make the world more peaceful and more free." In other words, Bush intends to get rid of Saddam, and Arab leaders had better adjust themselves to that reality.

The episode revealed a lot. For one thing, it showed how far Bush has gone in transforming himself into a strong and confident leader. It's hard to imagine the Bush of a year ago stepping in to correct the vice president on a matter of foreign policy. More important, it showed that Bush knows exactly what he's doing. While the Middle East hands try and fail to fashion a sophisticated policy to woo the Arabs, Bush has a much truer and deeper understanding of the way the world works. The Arab leaders will turn around when the United States shows convincingly that it will not be deterred, distracted, or delayed.

There is thus good reason to believe that while Cheney's trip may have hurt the cause, the damage will turn out to be temporary. The decision on Iraq and the prosecution of the war on terror remain in President Bush's steady hands, and we have every confidence he will do what's right.

Robert Kagan is a contributing editor and William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.