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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“That is your job,” he agreed. But the vice president said he wouldn’t respond directly to my question: “I think the president has worked this one very hard, and properly so.” He conceded that the administration hadn’t achieved its objective on North Korea, but that is “primarily because the North Koreans have refused to keep the commitments they have made in connection with the negotiations that we’ve had.”

If Cheney’s influence diminished in the second term, it did not disappear altogether. No one in the Bush administration—including the president—was a stronger proponent for the surge in Iraq, and history will record his steadfast advocacy for the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq as one of his signature accomplishments. But telling the story of the surge—and, more broadly, of postwar Iraq—creates a problem for Cheney. It’s impossible to describe the need for the surge without acknowledging the failure of the strategy that made it necessary, and it’s impossible to acknowledge the failure of that strategy without criticizing the man responsible for it: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld and Cheney are best friends. They have been close since Rumsfeld first brought Cheney into the executive branch back in the Nixon administration—a more difficult task than it might seem. After Cheney had been kicked out of Yale (twice), he was arrested for drunk driving (twice) back in Wyoming. When the FBI did a background check, Cheney acknowledged the missteps, and Rumsfeld, after asking Cheney if he had admitted his brushes with the law, made sure they did not keep Cheney from working in the White House. “He stood by me,” Cheney writes in his chapter on the Nixon years, “and I have never forgotten that.”

Cheney acknowledges the difficulties in postwar Iraq while downplaying the criticism. “I tend to think that hindsight in this area is twenty-twenty,” he argues. “We had tremendously talented people working hard in Baghdad—military and civilian—to accomplish an exceedingly difficult task. They didn’t always get it right. And we didn’t always get it right in Washington.”

Cheney goes on to describe a meeting in 2006 in which Generals John Abizaid and George Casey gave a progress report on an ever more violent Iraq: “They were carrying out a strategy that defined success based on turnover of responsibility to the Iraqis” when it was becoming increasingly clear that Iraqis could not handle it. Cheney writes that he came to the meeting with a series of questions: “Is there more we could be doing to defeat the insurgency? Do we need more troops? Are the Iraqis convinced that we’ll see this through? What does it take to win?”

Violence had been escalating in Iraq for three years. Is it really the case that a former defense secretary, who writes that he had expressed concerns about Afghanistan after just three weeks of American boots on the ground, didn’t ask these questions until three years into Iraq?

Cheney doesn’t tell us that he had failed to ask these questions earlier; he just doesn’t acknowledge that he did. Eight months after the invasion, Cheney spoke by phone to L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator in Iraq, and according to Bremer’s notes from the call, Cheney asked: “What’s our strategy to win? My impression is that the Pentagon’s mindset is that the war’s over and they’re now in the ‘mopping-up’ phase. They fail to see we’re in a major battle against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.”

Cheney didn’t remember the call when I asked him about it, but members of his national security staff and others involved in Iraq decision-making say that his concerns about the military strategy came early. Cheney left that out. When I interviewed him shortly before he left the White House, I asked Cheney directly whether he was pushing for a change in strategy before the surge.

“Well, you’re putting me in a difficult position,” he said.

I pressed him.

“I’m going to pass on your question. I do have some things I want to say in that area, but I think I’ll save it for my book,” he joked.

In this case, what he left out of the book might tell us as much about Dick Cheney, the man, as what he included.

Stephen F. Hayes, senior writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (2007).