The vice president, whose moderation and 35-year Washington experience reassured voters worried about the callowness and inexperience of Bush during the 2000 campaign, is seen more and more by Republican politicos as a drag on the president's re-election chances in what is universally expected to be an extremely close race.
The reasons are simple: instead of the moderate voice of wisdom and caution that voters thought they were getting in the vice president, ongoing disclosures about his role in the drive to war in Iraq and other controversial administration initiatives depict him as an extremist who constantly pushed for the most radical measures.
Not just an extremist, but also a kind of eminence grise who exercises undue influence over Bush to further a radical agenda, a notion that was furthered by the publication of a recent book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill who described Cheney as creating a “kind of praetorian guard around the president” that blocked out contrary views.
In addition, Cheney's association with Halliburton, the giant construction and oil company that he headed for much of the 1990s and that gobbled up billions of dollars in contracts for Iraq's post-war reconstruction, is growing steadily as a major political liability.
Indeed, Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail are already using Halliburton's rhythmic, four-syllable name (Hal'-li-bur-ton, Hal'-li-bur-ton) as a mantra that neatly taps into the public's growing concerns on Iraq and disgust with crony capitalism and corporate greed all at the same time.
“Dump Cheney” Movement
Reports surfaced already two months ago that a discreet “dump-Cheney” movement had been launched by intimate associates of Bush's father--his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and secretary of state, James Baker, who now has a White House appointment as Bush's personal envoy to persuade official creditors to substantially reduce Iraq 's $110 billion foreign debt.
In addition to their perception that Cheney's presence would harm Bush's re-election chances, the two men, who battled frequently with the vice president when he was defense secretary under the first Bush administration, have privately expressed great concern over the Cheney's unparalleled influence over the younger Bush and the damage it has done to U.S. relations with long-time allies, particularly in Europe and the Arab world.
Cheney's unprecedented rounds of press interviews earlier this month, as well as his trip this week to Switzerland and Italy--only the second time the vice president has traveled abroad in three years--should be seen in this context.
“I think he knows that he's in trouble,” noted one prominent Republican activist, who thinks Cheney should be dropped. “I don't think there's any other way to explain why he would sit for a puerile interview for the (Washington Post's) “Style” section. You know he despises that sort of thing.”
Cheney's travel and sudden and abundant press availability was noted in the New York Times on Jan. 27, which described his behavior as “a calculated election-year makeover to temper his hard-line image at home and abroad.”
What was remarkable, however, is that he may only have confirmed the growing impression that he remains a zealot, an impression that was especially pronounced in an interview he gave National Public Radio (NPR) last week.
Cheney not only insisted that the major stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may still be found in Iraq, he also asserted that two semi-trailer trucks found in Iraq during the war constituted “conclusive evidence” of WMD programs.
Both assertions were almost instantly refuted by none other than the administration's outgoing chief weapons inspector, David Kay. In a series of statements published after Cheney's NPR broadcast, Kay said he had concluded that the WMD stockpiles were destroyed in the early 1990s and that the two trailers were intended to introduce hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly rocket fuel, but had nothing to do with WMD.
In the same NPR interview, Cheney also insisted there was “overwhelming evidence” of an “established relationship” between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, citing as one clue Hussein's alleged harboring of a suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York .
But the notion of such an “established relationship” in any operational sense has now been virtually totally discarded by the intelligence community, and Bush and other senior officials have largely dropped the issue.
Moreover, the FBI and other intelligence agencies that investigated the 1993 bombing and the subsequent residence in Iraq of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a low-level suspect, never found any evidence that Iraq was actively protecting him or that he was linked to Iraqi intelligence in any way.
Indeed, the fact that Cheney would cite Yasin at this late date suggested that he still clings to a theory developed in the 1990s by Iraq specialist Laurie Mylroie at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that al Qaeda was actually a front for Iraqi intelligence, a notion that is completely dismissed by the intelligence community.
In a recent Washington Monthly article based on interviews with numerous intelligence officials involved in the bombing investigation, Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., a highly regarded book on al Qaeda, concluded that Mylroie was, “in short, a crackpot.”
Cheney as Richelieu
In a second interview, Cheney told USA Today that he was not worried about his image as the administration's Machiavelli skilled in the quiet arts of persuading his “Prince” to pursue questionable policies, adding, surprisingly unselfconsciously, “Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually.”
But whether Cheney likes it or not, he is increasingly seen that way, by Democrats, by Republican internationalists like Baker and Scowcroft, and, perhaps, most significantly for purposes of Bush's re-election prospects, by a growing number of traditionally Republican right-wingers and libertarians who are worried about the exploding costs of the “war on terror” on the country's fiscal health, individual liberties, and armed forces. They also blame Cheney for being administration's key backer and enabler of the neoconservative vision of a never-ending war against radical Islam, which they believe will only accelerate current trends.
“So Dick Cheney turns out to be a true radical--not a moderate Republican,” noted Georgie Anne Geyer, a nationally syndicated columnist, who compared the vice president to Cardinal Richelieu of 17th century France in a cover article for this week's edition of American Conservative.
“While there is little mystery about what he has actually done, there remains the mystery of how a man from Wyoming should be the epicenter of a scheme so strange, so Machiavellian, so profoundly disaggregated from the American context,” she wrote. “But no one should expect Dick Cheney and his group (of neoconservatives) to change. They will not.”
In a case of particularly bad timing, Cheney's image as a manipulative schemer was furthered again this week just as he was trying to reassure Europeans about his moderation and commitment to multilateralism.
In a new book on Tony Blair, author and Financial Times correspondent Philip Stephens depicts Cheney as the surprise guest at key meetings between Bush and the British prime minister. It quotes one Blair aide as complaining that Cheney “waged a guerrilla war” against London's efforts to seek UN approval before the war.
The book concludes that Cheney constantly “sought to undermine the prime minister privately” and quotes him as telling another senior official more than six months before the war, “Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools.”
Despite Hussein's capture, however, that “victory” still looks rather tenuous, and, what with recent polls showing Cheney's favorability rating at less than half of Bush's at a mere 20% and falling, so may Cheney's claim to the number two spot on the Republican ticket.
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