The Magazine

Cheney--the Exit Interview

On North Korea, the bailout, and Obama's naiveté.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When I showed up for my interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on January 6, he was standing behind his desk in the West Wing of the White House sipping, as he often does, from a can of Sprite Zero.

I told him that I hoped we could spend a little time working through his feelings about leaving the White House after eight years. I wanted to see the softer side of Dick Cheney.

"All warm and fuzzy?" he asked, laughing. "In the last two weeks of my time in active service?"

"Yeah, you could start getting all emotional," I suggested.

He paused.

"It ain't gonna happen."

If Cheney was reluctant to open up about his feelings, his talk on policies and politics was, as ever, revealing. He thinks Barack Obama is naïve about national security. He worries that the Bush administration's aggressive intervention in the free market will do long-term damage to conservative efforts to limit government. And though he tried mightily to avoid saying so, Cheney believes that the administration's North Korea policy has failed.

In 2005, a longtime Cheney friend and adviser told me the vice president believes that world leaders are best judged by what they've done, not what they say. The adviser explained that Cheney has few illusions about the possibilities of great change and offered an example: Kim Jong Il.

Cheney had warned in 1994 that North Korea posed the greatest potential threat to the United States and that the "Agreed Framework" struck by the Clinton administration was dangerously foolish in rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior. Ten years later, when Cheney met with top Chinese officials in Beijing, North Korea was his top priority. "Our concern is that time is not necessarily on our side, that North Korea may continue to use this technology to further develop their capabilities," Cheney told Jiang Zemin, according to two officials in the room. "One of the greatest threats we face is the proliferation of those technologies."

Cheney was right. Time was not on our side. And in the four years of diplomatic failure since those meetings, we have seen evidence of the dangers of proliferation. Yet in the 50-page brochure the White House just published--Highlights of Accomplishments and Results: The Administration of President George W. Bush, 2001-2009--we learn: "Through the Six-Party talks, the United States worked to secure a commitment from North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons program." That claim is literally true. The United States did work to secure such a commitment. But it failed. And in the process the Bush administration prostrated itself before a dictator whose rogue regime was not long ago considered evil.

I asked Cheney about it.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD: The administration is distributing a 50-page glossy blue brochure that you may have seen--

CHENEY: I know there's one around out there.

TWS:--listing accomplishments. And on page 40--I found this interesting--the accomplishment was: "Secured a commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear program."

Cheney did not need to hear the question. He dropped his chin to his chest, smiled broadly, and began shaking his head.
"Is this an accomplishment that you celebrate?" I asked him.

Still looking at the floor, the vice president paused for several seconds before answering. He looked up and flashed a puckish grin.

CHENEY: I haven't read the report.

TWS: I assure you I'm quoting it accurately.

CHENEY: (laughing): I'm sure you are. I don't have any doubt about that. Well, I think I'm going to take a pass.

TWS: Let me ask it in a different way. Some of our common friends in recent days and weeks have called administration policy on North Korea "preemptive capitulation." Is that too strong a criticism?

CHENEY: Steve, you've put me in a difficult position here.

TWS: That's my job, that's my job.

CHENEY: That is your job. And I think--well, let me make a--without responding to that, let me make a statement on North Korea.

He stopped smiling.