By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006
Vice President Cheney offered a veiled attack yesterday on critics of the administration's Iraq policy, saying the domestic debate over the war is emboldening adversaries who believe they can undermine the resolve of the American people.
"They can't beat us in a stand-up fight -- they never have -- but they're absolutely convinced they can break our will, [that] the American people don't have the stomach for the fight," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The vice president said U.S. allies in Afghanistan and Iraq "have doubts" the United States will finish the job there. "And those doubts are encouraged, obviously, when they see the kind of debate that we've had in the United States," he said. "Suggestions, for example, that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq simply feed into that whole notion, validates the strategy of the terrorists."
Cheney unapologetically defended the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, saying the administration would have done "exactly the same thing" even if it knew before the war what he acknowledged knowing now -- that Iraq did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Yet he also gave a bit of ground, as he was pressed repeatedly by interviewer Tim Russert about statements that turned out to be wrong or damaging to his credibility.
The vice president acknowledged he had been overly optimistic in predicting a quick demise to the Iraqi insurgency that continues to bedevil U.S. forces. More than a year ago, in May 2005, Cheney proclaimed the insurgency was in its "last throes." Since then, more than 1,000 U.S. troops have died and sectarian violence has intensified.
"I think there's no question . . . that the insurgency's gone on longer and been more difficult [than] I had anticipated," Cheney said. But he added that 2005 will be seen as a "turning point" in Iraq's history because of elections that have led to a democratic government.
He did not mention warnings from the intelligence community and others that the post-invasion Iraq could be consumed by religious violence, and that pacifying the country would require many thousands more troops than those committed by the White House.
Cheney's appearance came on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and as the Bush administration ratchets up efforts to convince Americans that the war in Iraq is part of a global struggle against Islamic terrorism and extremism. As it tries to keep GOP majorities in Congress, the White House is hoping to make the elections more about battling terrorism in general than about the unpopular war in Iraq.
In sending out Cheney to do a nearly hour-long interview with Russert, the administration chose one of the principal authors of its national security strategy -- but one whose stature has been eroded, in part, by assertions that Democrats and even some administration allies consider as lacking credibility.
Democrats reacted with scorn to Cheney's latest comments.
"Vice President Cheney's influence over our nation's foreign policy and defense has made America less safe," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "The vice president was a chief architect of the effort to manipulate intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq; he ignored the threat of insurgencies, he took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and today he made clear that he would do nothing different."
Cheney appeared unruffled as Russert asked him again and again about his past remarks or about policies that have lost popularity with Americans.
When Russert presented polling data suggesting that most Americans do not view Iraq as part of a war against terrorists, Cheney replied, "I beg to differ. . . . The fact is, the world is much better off today with Saddam Hussein out of power."
Russert pushed Cheney on his repeated assertions that Sept. 11 plotter Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, which the vice president has used to raise the possibility of a connection between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Cheney said yesterday the CIA had presented a Czech intelligence report to him of the meeting but later "backed off" it; U.S. intelligence reports, however, repeatedly cast doubt on that meeting, even in the months before Cheney discussed it publicly in September 2002, according to a declassified report released Friday by the Senate intelligence committee.
Separate from the issue of Sept. 11, the vice president maintained, prewar Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism. He quoted former CIA chief George Tenet in saying there was a relationship between Hussein and al-Qaeda going "back at least a decade" before the U.S. invasion.
Cheney asserted that the slain al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had fled Afghanistan and "set up operations in Baghdad in the spring of '02 and was there from then, basically, until basically the time we launched into Iraq." The Senate intelligence committee reported that, by October 2005, the CIA had debunked the idea of any prewar relationship between Zarqawi and Hussein's government.
Cheney told Russert that he had not read the Senate report.
Cheney said it is "hard to say" whether there are more terrorists now than five years ago. But the fact that al-Qaeda has launched no successful attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, shows that the administration's policies are working, he added.
"I don't know how you can explain five years of no attacks, five years of successful disruption of attacks, five years of, of defeating the efforts of al-Qaeda to come back and kill more Americans," Cheney said. "You've got to give some credence to the notion that maybe somebody did something right."
Cheney said he sees "part of my job is to think about the unthinkable, to focus upon what, in fact, the terrorists may have in store for us." He said the threat that drives administration thinking is "the possibility of a cell of al-Qaeda in the midst of one of our own cities with a nuclear weapon, or a biological agent. In that case, you'd be dealing -- for example, if on 9/11 they'd had a nuke instead of an airplane, you'd have been looking at a casualty toll that would rival all the deaths in all the wars fought by Americans in 230 years."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.