Dick Cheney, Commander in Chief

"Like with a horse, Powell is always able to lead Bush to the water. But just as he is about to put his head down, Cheney up in the saddle says, 'Un-uh,' and yanks up the reins before Bush can drink the water. That's my image of how it goes," said Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describing the power relationship between George Bush and Dick Cheney in a recent interview with the National Journal.

The image of the president of the United States as a tame horse, saddled up and ridden by his own vice president, may seem overblown, but Biden is not alone in his assessment of the White House's internal dynamics. When it comes to foreign policy, Cheney is increasingly seen as holding the reins in the power circles within Washington.

While the mainstream media mostly continue to cast Bush as the captain of his ship, hints that Cheney is the dominant figure shaping Washington's diplomatic policy have become too numerous to ignore. A recent Washington Post article assessing Condoleezza Rice's performance as national security adviser revealed a most stunning example of this lopsided state of affairs. According to the Post, Bush had ordered Cabinet officials not to give any preferential treatment to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) when U.S. forces moved into Iraq last spring. But soon after, in flagrant violation of his directive, the Pentagon flew Chalabi and 600 of his armed followers into southern Iraq in early April, "with the approval of the vice president."

It would not be the first or last time that Cheney simply ignored his commander-in-chief. The extent of Cheney's power is not surprising given the degree to which Bush relied on him during his presidential campaign and in the administration's early days. And the fact that Cheney, who was asked by Bush to recommend his running mate in 2000, picked himself for the job reveals that he expected to wield extraordinary power if Bush won the election.

Cheney's dominance has been the decisive factor in the ongoing battle between the Pentagon and the State Department over U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to Biden's account, has sometimes talked Bush into pursuing a more conciliatory foreign-policy line, as he has done with North Korea or the United Nations from time to time. But thus far Cheney's views have always won out in the long run.

Enforcing policy discipline, especially in a divided administration, is ordinarily the task of the national security adviser. But Rice, an academic whose substantive knowledge of foreign policy is largely confined to the Soviet Union and Russia, has not been equal to the job. Her failure combined with Bush's own passivity and inexperience has enabled Cheney to dominate the policy process, particularly with respect to the Middle East where Cheney's views are almost entirely consistent with those of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

A Republican right-winger, Cheney is surrounded by neo-conservatives, many with close ties to Israel's Likud Party. Even before Sept. 11, Cheney had endorsed Israel's selective assassination policy -- even as the State Department was busy denouncing it. One year later, Cheney told Israel's defense minister, albeit privately, that he thought Palestinian President Yasser Arafat "should be hanged." Biden told reporters in October, "If you look at Afghanistan, if you look at the (Israeli-Palestinian peace) road map, if you look at Iraq, if you look at bilateral and multilateral dealings with the Europeans, just as Powell looks like he will stitch the garment back together again, Cheney goes to the Heritage Foundation and re-enunciates the policy of preemption."

Cheney has played a much more important role than Rice since the early days of the administration, despite her closer personal relationship with the president. It was Cheney's choices that prevailed in the appointment of both cabinet and sub-cabinet national-security officials, beginning with that of Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary. Not only did Cheney personally intervene to ensure that Powell's best friend, Richard Armitage, was denied the deputy defense secretary position, but he also secured the post for his own protégé, Paul Wolfowitz. Moreover, it was Cheney who insisted that the ultra-unilateralist John Bolton be placed in a top State Department arms job -- a position from which Bolton has consistently pursued policies that run counter to Powell's own views.

Moreover, Cheney's own national-security staff is the largest ever employed by a vice president. Its members have largely been chosen for both their ideological affinity with their boss and proven Washington experience. "They play to win," said one State Department official. Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a Washington lawyer and Wolfowitz protégé, is considered a far more skilled and experienced bureaucratic and political operator than Rice. With several of his political allies on Rice's own staff -- , including deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Middle East director Elliott Abrams -- Libby "is able to run circles around Condi," noted a former NSC official .

Cheney's muscle is most apparent in shaping the White House's Iraq policy. He played a key role in assigning responsibility for post-war reconstruction to the Pentagon, a major departure from the long-standing tradition to giving the State Department the lead in such areas. Similarly, Cheney backed the Pentagon's decision to entirely exclude the State Department from the planning process. The State Department's mammoth "Future of Iraq Project," which pulled together hundreds of Iraqi expatriates and other experts to come up with a detailed plan for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, was simply ignored and so was Tom Warrick, a highly regarded Iraq specialist who oversaw the project.

According to retired intelligence officers, Cheney and Libby played the decisive role in distorting the intelligence used to make Bush's case for war. Libby made frequent trips to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the run-up to the Iraq war, pressuring analysts in include questionable evidence supplied by the INC and Rumsfeld-led hawks.

More recently, it was Cheney who led the effort to deny Powell the authority to negotiate a new UN Security Council resolution that would have reduced the Pentagon's control over the political transition in Iraq, even though the president initially approved such a deal.

The vice president is currently working within the White House to resist congressional pressure to reduce Pentagon's control over Iraq policy and to oust several senior hawks in the DoD. Beginning with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the neoconservatives in the Pentagon are under fire for misleading Congress on both the evidence used to justify the war and the post-war situation.

Cheney's clout has even elicited rebukes from the Hill. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar and Joe Biden, the Committee's ranking Democrat, explicitly mentioned the vice president as part of their bipartisan appeal to Bush, asking him to take control over his foreign policy.

"I would say, Mr. President, take charge. Take charge ... Let your secretary of defense, state, and your vice president know 'This is my policy, any one of you that divert from the policy is off the team,'" said Biden on NBC's 'Meet the Press' in early October. Lugar, a staunch, albeit moderate Republican, appearing on the same show echoed the sentiment, adding, "The president has to be president. That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries."

Recent announcements that Rice has hired Robert Blackwill, Bush's former ambassador to India and reputedly a skilled bureaucratic and Republican infighter himself, as her top deputy and that she is heading up a new, inter-agency Iraq Stabilization Group, are designed to create the appearance that she is at last taking charge of the country's foreign policy. So far, however, there is little evidence that Cheney is prepared to turn over control of his favorite hobbyhorse.

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy for AlterNet, Inter Press Services, TomPaine.com and Foreign Policy in Focus.


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