The Magazine

Cheney Speaks

What he says, and doesn’t say, is revealing.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In the fall of 2006, he writes, Bush issued a stern warning after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. The president noted that North Korea was a leader in proliferation of nuclear technology, “including transfers to Iran and Syria,” leading state sponsors of terror: “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.”

Six months later, Cheney learned from Israel’s top intelligence official that North Korea had, in fact, worked with Syria on nuclear technology. The North Koreans had helped Bashar al-Assad build a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert that bore “a striking resemblance to the North Korean reactor located in Yongbyon.” A subsequent briefing by American intelligence informed Cheney that “sustained nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria” had probably started a decade earlier.

The implications were profound. President Bush had spent much of his first term sounding alarms about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists and warning rogue states against proliferation. And the administration had participated in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program with the objective of inducing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Within a six-month period, top Bush administration officials learned that the North Korean program had progressed to the point where they could conduct a crude nuclear test, and that Kim Jong Il’s regime had shared nuclear technology with Syria.

North Korea’s attempts to hide its behavior had been so ineffective as to be almost provocative: Among the participants in the six-party talks was the head of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. The same man had been photographed in Syria with the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Worse, the pages of North Korea’s nuclear declaration itself tested positive for traces of uranium! Even the North Koreans’ attempts to exonerate themselves ended up providing more evidence of wrongdoing.

Cheney argued for tough measures on both North Korea and Syria. The Israelis had asked the United States to destroy the reactor in Syria. Cheney told Bush he thought we should do just that as a way to send a message to both the Syrians and the North Koreans. But no one agreed with him. So the United States did nothing. Cheney told Bush that the Israelis would act if we did not; Rice told him they would seek a diplomatic solution. On September 6, 2007, Israel obliterated the facility: “The North Koreans and the Syrians were clearly violating the red line drawn by President Bush on October 9, 2006,” writes Cheney.

The failure to punish them for these transgressions was only half the problem. With the State Department in the lead, the Bush administration would spend the remainder of its second term trying to persuade North Korea to change its behavior with concession after concession in the hopes of some diplomatic triumph. For Condoleezza Rice and her top envoy on North Korea, Chris Hill, “the agreement seemed to become the objective, and we ended up with a clear setback in our nonproliferation efforts.”

Cheney argues that Bush never lost sight of the overall objective—slowing the proliferation of nuclear technology—but he doesn’t seem to mean it. Even after the North Koreans were caught red-handed, Cheney writes, the president agreed to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terror and lifted some sanctions.

I was disappointed, and not just because I disagreed with the president. It was his call. But the process and the decision that followed had seemed so out of keeping with the clearheaded way I’d seen him make decisions in the past.

Still, Cheney refused to directly criticize the president on North Korea even as he left office. When I interviewed him two weeks before the inauguration of Barack Obama, I asked him about a glossy White House pamphlet that boasted the administration had “secured a commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear program.”

“Is that an accomplishment you celebrate?”

“I haven’t read the report,” said Cheney, smiling.

“I assure you I’m quoting it accurately.”

“I’m sure you are,” he responded. “I don’t have any doubt about that. I think I’m going to take a pass.”

I told him I wanted to ask the same question in a different way. Did he agree with those who believe that the administration’s policy on North Korea had been one of “preemptive capitulation”?

“Steve, you’ve put me in a difficult position here.” 

“That’s my job.”