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Cheney Was Unwavering in Desire to Go to War

Cheney then listed all the reasons inspections could mire them in a tar pit. First, the inspectors would not be Americans, but lawyers and experts from around the world who were less concerned about, and less skeptical of, Hussein. Second, these inspectors, like those in the past, would be more inclined to accept what they were told by Iraqi authorities, less likely to challenge, more likely to be fooled. The end result, Cheney said, would be deliberations or reports that would be inconclusive. So inspections would make getting to a decision to actually take out Hussein much more difficult.

Swayed by Blair's plea later that day that for his political viability he had to be able to show he had tried the United Nations, Bush decided this time in Powell's favor.


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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Powell Says He Was 'Committed' to Iraq War (The Washington Post, Apr 20, 2004)
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Cheney Stands His Ground

On Jan. 31, 2003, Blair again prevailed on Bush to go to the United Nations, again over Cheney's objections. This time the president asked Powell to make the case against Hussein. As Powell was preparing his speech, he received a call from Cheney.

Colin, the vice president said, look carefully at the terrorism case that Scooter prepared. Give it a good look.

Sure, Dick, Powell said. He generally used the vice president's first name when they were alone. Cheney was not ordering him or trying to direct him. It was just a request to take a serious look.

Powell looked at it. Four meetings between Sept. 11 pilot Mohamed Atta with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague -- meetings that had been alleged but never proved to have taken place. That was worse than ridiculous. Powell pitched it.

Powell thought that Cheney had the fever. The vice president and Wolfowitz kept looking for the connection between Hussein and Sept. 11. It was a separate little government that was out there -- Wolfowitz, Libby, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith and Feith's "Gestapo office," as Powell privately called it. He saw in Cheney a sad transformation. The cool operator from the first Gulf War just would not let go. Cheney now had an unhealthy fixation. Nearly every conversation or reference came back to al Qaeda and trying to nail the connection with Iraq. He would often have an obscure piece of intelligence. Powell thought that Cheney took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact.

It was about the worst charge that Powell could make about the vice president. But there it was. Cheney would take an intercept and say it shows something was happening. No, no, no, Powell or another would say, it shows that somebody talked to somebody else who said something might be happening. A conversation would suggest something might be happening, and Cheney would convert that into a "We know." Well, Powell concluded, we didn't know. No one knew.

Strained Relations

After major combat operations ended in Iraq in May 2003, Powell spent the next months more often than not on the defensive. To those who thought he should have been a more forceful advocate against war, he replied that he had taken his best shot. He had not misled anyone, he told associates. He had argued successfully in August and September 2002 that the president should adopt two tracks -- plan for war and conduct diplomacy through the United Nations. The president could travel those two tracks only so long before he would reach a fork in the road, and one fork was war.

"He's the president," Powell told associates, "and he decided and, therefore, it was my obligation to go down the other fork with him."

As the war planning had progressed over the nearly 16 months, Powell had felt that the easier the war looked, the less Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks had worried about the aftermath. They seemed to think that Iraq was a crystal goblet and that all they had to do was tap it and it would crack. It had turned out to be a beer mug instead. Now they owned the beer mug.

Visiting Iraq in the fall of 2003, Powell saw the mass graves and heard the testimony of witnesses to the torture and oppression. He was delighted that Hussein and his whole rotten government were gone. It was the saving grace. Certainly the decision to go to war was not 100 percent wrong. History, after all, had not yet determined whether it was right or wrong.

Cheney continued to be Powell's bête noire. At meetings of the principals, in Powell's view, Cheney improved on his technique of not betraying his position by insisting he either didn't have one, or could change his mind in 30 minutes. Powell finally decoded the technique. He concluded that he had to listen carefully because Cheney's disavowals generally turned out to be positions about which Cheney was not going to change his mind.

Relations became so strained that Powell and Cheney could not, and did not, have a sit-down lunch or any discussion about their differences. Never.

Powell thought that now that Bush and the administration had to live with the consequences of their Iraq decisions, they were becoming dangerously protective of those decisions. There was no one in the White House who could break through to insist on a realistic reassessment. There was no Karen Hughes who could go to Bush and say, "Pay attention, you're in trouble." Powell believed it was the hardest of all tasks to go back to fundamentals and question one's own judgment, and there was no sign it was going to happen. So he soldiered on once again against the current.

Cheney in Charge?

At the beginning of 2004, Cheney was confident that the Iraq war would be seen as a history-shaping event. He was unrepentant about his analysis of terrorism and his assertions about Hussein. The great threat to the nation was al Qaeda armed -- not just with box cutters and airline tickets, but with a nuke in the middle of an American city. The administration had been accused of not having connected the dots before Sept. 11. How could it afford to ignore the dots after Sept. 11? It was just that simple.

Cheney believed that given the intelligence reporting about Iraq-al Qaeda links over so many years and the intelligence evidence on weapons of mass destruction, no one in his right mind sitting in Bush's position as president could have ignored it.

There was so much focus on the aftermath and criticism of the postwar planning. Cheney thought it wouldn't matter in the end. It would be noise to history as long as they were successful in what they were trying to do. Outcomes mattered. He thought history would treat Bush very well, though he acknowledged that the jury was still out.

Nearly all presidents have had to deal with vice presidents with real or imagined political futures. Even Bush senior, the super-loyal vice president, broke publicly with President Ronald Reagan several times when he deemed it politically necessary, such as when the Reagan administration was negotiating with Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and Bush had distanced himself from dealings with the unsavory strongman. But Cheney had made it clear he did not aspire to the presidency.

On a few occasions, political adviser Karl Rove and the president had discussed the news stories that Cheney was the one pulling the strings and running things behind the scenes. Some of the White House communications people worried about this. Bush laughed. Both of them had seen how deferential Cheney was. "Yes, Mr. President," or "No, Mr. President." It was no different when the president and Cheney were alone.

When the president wasn't around, Cheney often referred to him as "The Man," saying, "The Man wants this." Or, "The Man thinks this." Cheney was a forceful, persistent advocate, but the president decided. The clearest evidence of that was Cheney's strenuous objection to going to the United Nations to seek new weapons inspection resolutions. The president had gone against his advice. Cheney had saluted.

Rove argued that the politics of the Cheney-is-in-charge thesis worked in their favor. First, anyone who believed that was long lost to them anyway. Second, Rove wanted them to keep talking about it, throw the campaign into that briar patch. He believed the ordinary person wouldn't buy it. Here 67 percent were saying Bush was a strong leader and that included a third of the people who disapproved of his performance in office. A strong leader would not kowtow to his vice president, and Bush did not look meek in public.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.


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