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Cheney Was Unwavering in Desire to Go to War

Trouble is what Cheney had in mind.

"Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack," read the headline in the New York Times on Aug. 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called weapons inspections futile. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions," Cheney had said of Hussein. "On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in the box.' "

The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Hussein: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein "desires" these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney's.


In 1991, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, greeted U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia. Of his relationship with Cheney, Powell wrote, "He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together." (Bob Daughterty - AP)

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Cheney also said that these weapons in the hands of a "murderous dictator" are "as great a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."

These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy. Powell was astonished. It was a preemptive attack on what the president had agreed to 10 days earlier. Cheney's speech blew it all up. Now Powell felt boxed in. To add to his problem, the BBC started releasing excerpts of an interview Powell had given before Cheney's speech, asserting, "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return."

Stories began appearing saying that Powell was contradicting Cheney. He was accused of disloyalty, and he counted seven editorials calling for his resignation or implying he should quit. How can I be disloyal, he wondered, when I'm giving the president's stated position?

Adelman thought Bush was really delaying too long in deposing Hussein. Two days after Cheney's speech, he weighed in with a blistering op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Hussein was a bigger threat than al Qaeda, he wrote, because he had a country, billions in oil revenue, an army and "scores of scientific laboratories and myriad manufacturing plants cranking out weapons of mass destruction."

The problem could not be solved with new U.N. inspections, Adelman wrote. "Every day Mr. Bush holds off liberating Iraq is another day endangering America. Posing as a 'patient man,' he risks a catastrophic attack. Should that attack occur and be traced back to an Iraqi WMD facility, this president would be relegated to the ash heap of history."

It was strong stuff. Cheney did not communicate directly with Adelman on such matters, but he passed word to a mutual friend, who called Adelman right after his article appeared to report the vice president's reaction. "Ken has been extremely helpful in all this," the friend quoted Cheney as saying, "and I really appreciate what he has done and it's been great."

A day later, Aug. 29, Cheney spoke to the Veterans of the Korean War in San Antonio. It was the same speech with significant differences. He dropped his assertion that weapons inspections might provide "false comfort" and watered down his criticism, saying that "inspections are not an end in themselves."

Instead of asserting as he had in the first version of the speech that, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," he said simply that Hussein was pursuing "an aggressive nuclear weapons program." Some other language was moderated, by eliminating a "very," for example, and about eight paragraphs were removed from the speech.

Cheney and Powell at Odds

On the evening of Sept. 6, the national security principals met at Camp David without Bush to go over the U.N. issues before Saturday morning's scheduled NSC meeting with the president and afternoon summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Cheney continued to argue that to ask for a new resolution would put them back in the hopeless soup of U.N. process. All Bush needed to say in his speech was that Hussein was bad -- a willful, serial violator of U.N. resolutions -- and that the president reserved the right to act unilaterally.

But that would not be asking for U.N. support, Powell replied. The United Nations would not just roll over, declare Hussein evil and authorize war. That approach was not salable. The president had decided to give the United Nations a chance, and the only practical way to do that was to seek a new resolution.

Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney. He was not the steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein. It was as if nothing else existed. Powell attempted to summarize the consequences of unilateral action, an argument he felt he had down pretty well. He added a new dimension, saying that the international reaction would be so negative that he would have to close U.S. embassies around the world if we went to war alone.

That is not the issue, Cheney said. Hussein and the clear threat are the issue.

Maybe it would not turn out as the vice president thinks, Powell said. War could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences -- some that none of them, he included, had imagined.

Not the issue, Cheney said.

The conversation exploded into a tough debate between the two men, who danced on the edge of civility but did not depart from the formal deference they generally showed each other. It was sharp and biting, however, and they both knew how to score debating points as they pulled apart the last fraying threads of what had connected them for so many years. Powell appeared to harbor a deep-seated anger even though he was getting his way this time.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 7, Bush met with the NSC and the argument was joined again. Powell said that if for no other reason than U.S. credibility, they needed to offer a plan to begin inspections again as part of any reengagement with the United Nations on Iraq. Procedurally, the only way to do this was to seek new resolutions.


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