Why should anyone take seriously what Dick Cheney says about President Obama’s policy in Iraq?
In their Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Cheney and his daughter Liz began by cherry- picking Obama quotes from over three years about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
That warmed-over technique is what Cheney, President George W. Bush and other top aides cleverly used with intelligence reports in the fall of 2002 as they drummed up public support for their invasion of Iraq. That, of course, set the stage for today’s terrible events.
“Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” the Cheneys chortled. “Too many times to count, Mr. Obama has told us he is ‘ending’ the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as though wishing made it so.”
Let’s return to a Dick Cheney speech on Aug. 27, 2002, in Nashville, before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and see how many times a vice president could be “so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”
He told his audience: “In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda terrorists have met the fate they chose for themselves. And they saw . . . the new methods and capabilities of America’s armed services.”
Here’s another applause line: “In the case of Osama bin Laden — as President Bush said recently — ‘If he’s alive, we’ll get him. If he’s not alive — we already got him.”
The Bush team never got him. Obama did.
When Cheney was speaking, bin Laden was very much alive. Al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban had just retreated, but they were able to regroup as the Bush team, satisfied with its “victory” in Afghanistan, had turned its attention and U.S. military forces toward Iraq.
It was in this speech that Cheney began what a former Bush chief of staff, Andrew Card, would describe as the fall 2002 public-relations plan to “educate the public” about the so-called threat from Iraq. That effort would lead to a congressional joint resolution authorizing the president to use U.S. armed forces to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and “enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”
Cheney told the VFW: “The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago.”
He added: “We’ve gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors — including Saddam’s own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam’s direction. Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”
A former White House deputy press secretary, Scott McClellan, would later write that a White House Iraq Group (WHIG) was “set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the [Iraq] war,” and will continue “as a strategic communications group after the invasion had toppled Saddam [Hussein]’s regime.”
It was Cheney at the VFW convention who first said: “Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.”
He also said: “Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.”
Show me a better example of “as though wishing made it so.”
The Cheneys also cavalierly forget that the status of forces agreement with Iraq that Bush signed Dec. 14, 2008, made way for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011. That agreement protected U.S. forces on duty from prosecution by Iraqi courts. It was the Iraqis’ desire to modify this that led Obama — on the advice of his military chiefs — to not leave a residual force of military trainers.
One more sign of the Cheneys’ convenient amnesia: They said of Obama’s initiative toward involving Tehran in the effort to put down ISIS advances in Iraq, “Only a fool would believe American policy in Iraq should be ceded to Iran, the world’s largest sponsor of terror.”
In November 2001, the Bush White House, despite icy relations, approved talking directly to Iran diplomats before and during the Bonn conference called to try to establish a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. As a result, U.S. Ambassador James Dobbin got what he described as Tehran’s “major contribution to forge a solution” among various Afghan groups, which in turn led to a unified temporary Kabul government under Hamid Karzai.
On Dec. 5, 2001, a White House spokesman described Bush as “very pleased” with the Afghan agreement. However, in his Jan. 29, 2002, State of the Union speech, Bush described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil” at the same time there were meetings underway between U.S. and Iranian diplomats to see whether talks could go beyond Afghanistan.
In contrast to the Cheneys, people should listen to former secretary of state James Baker III, who in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal called on the United States to organize an international coalition of regional countries, including Iran. Recalling Iran’s cooperation on Afghanistan, Baker said today’s “reality is that Iran is already the most influential external player in Iraq and so any effort without Iranian participation will likely fail.”
Baker has a successful track record and a memory. The Cheneys have neither.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage