The Magazine

Travels with Cheney

The Vice President visits the front lines of the war on terror

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On a cool December morning, Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad waited for their distinguished guests on the sidewalk outside of the ambassador's residence in the heart of the fortified Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. Moments passed, but no one came. As Khalilzad chattered in Cheney's ear, the vice president stood looking at the cloudless blue sky with his hands clasped behind his back, sporadically shuffling his right foot back and forth. They waited some more. An eager press corps-with cameras and microphones, pens and pads at the ready--waited to capture the handshake between Cheney and Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Cheney's first trip to liberated Iraq.

Moments earlier, after a meeting that to all outward appearances had run precisely as planned, Cheney and Khalilzad had bid farewell to President Jalal Talabani and Minister of Planning Barham Saleh, two leading Kurdish politicians. Talabani had said all of the right things in a brief statement before the press was removed from the 20-minute private meeting with the Americans. The corpulent Kurd had offered kind words for the "American brave Army" and told Cheney that Iraqis regarded him and George W. Bush as "great heroes of Iraq." The meeting had concluded and the four men had walked briskly outside to the front of the ambassador's residence. A white Chevy Suburban equipped with a rooftop device to scramble remotely controlled bombs had pulled up just as the men completed their final handshakes. Cheney and Khalilzad had waved to the departing vehicle and walked back inside.

Ten seconds later, they had reemerged before the cameras to greet al-Jaafari. And they waited. After five minutes the Shiite leader arrived in another white Chevy Suburban. A strong wave of musk cologne wafted over the press corps as al-Jaafari and a top adviser emerged from the vehicle and greeted the Americans.

Back inside, Cheney had given a three-sentence statement to the press explaining that he was delighted to be in Baghdad. Al-Jaafari would not be so brief. Speaking through a translator, the Iraqi prime minister revealed that he had not been told Cheney was coming. "I thought only the ambassador was going to be here," he said, smiling.

Turning to Cheney, al-Jaafari continued: "I'm very happy for your presence and for the presence of American soldiers." The Iraqi prime minister called 2005 "one of the most important years in Iraqi history" and noted the increase in turnout with each of the three elections this year. As al-Jaafari provided additional detail-- "from 59 percent in January, to 63 percent in October, to 70 percent on December 15" -- Khalilzad grew impatient. He widened his eyes, dipped his chin, and sliced his left hand through the air palm down as if to say, "Enough." Al-Jaafari took the hint and stopped short. The press was escorted from the room, and presumably the real work began.

Cheney's trip comes as part of a coordinate--and long overdue--Bush administration public relations offensive on Iraq and the war on terror. In the past week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made appearances on several Sunday talk shows; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also traveled to Iraq and the region; and senior national security officials were made available for rare on-the-record press briefings. On consecutive days, President Bush delivered a particularly meaty version of his weekly radio address, gave a prime time address to the nation from the Oval Office, and held a nationally televised press conference in the East Room.

It appears that these efforts are paying dividends. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released while Cheney was still in the region showed marked improvement in President Bush's overall approval (up 8 points to 47 percent) as well as his conduct of the war on terror (up 8 points to 56 percent) and its crucial battle in Iraq (up 10 points to 46 percent).

There has been concern among conservative activists and Republicans in Congress that this new campaign would be short-lived, that the administration would return to its defensive crouch of last summer as soon as the poll numbers rebounded. That's still a possibility, but if Cheney's language this week is any indication, it appears the Bush administration will continue to make the case aggressively that Americans are better off because of its conduct of national security policy, including the Iraq war.