Tough Words From This Cheney on U.S. Mideast Policy

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, June 9, 2008

Looks as though another former Bush administration official is off the reservation. But don't expect the kind of fierce counterattack the White House and its friends waged recently against former press secretary Scott McClellan after the release of his tell-all book.

On a panel at last week's American Israel Political Affairs Committee convention, former State Department official Elizabeth Cheney described the Annapolis peace process as "misguided," said the United States had been "fundamentally mistaken" to push for elections in Gaza and suggested that the Bush administration has not been tough enough with Syria.

"In my view, this administration has gotten it right when we have been bold, when we have been decisive, when we have been focused, when we have used our military force when necessary," Cheney said at the conference, according to a recording posted on the AIPAC Web site. "Where we have been less effective and less successful is when we have been unfortunately not so bold, when we have not held [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad to account for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, for the killing of American soldiers inside Iraq, for his support to Hezbollah."

Cheney is, of course, a private citizen who until early 2006 worked as a principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Near East Bureau before leaving to have her fifth child. She is also close to her father, Vice President Cheney -- so much so that when she was at State, people assumed her views reflected his perspective.

Whether they do now is unknown. But judging from her remarks at AIPAC, Liz is one Cheney unhappy with key elements of U.S. Mideast policy, from Lebanon and the peace process to how the White House dealt with elections in the Palestinian territories. She was also critical of Israel's performance in the 2006 war in Lebanon, citing "Israel's inability, unwillingness to do what was necessary . . . to fundamentally deal a blow to Hezbollah."

"I think that getting back to a situation where our enemies in the region understand that America will stand up for its friends, that America will stand up for its principles and that we have red lines is critically important," Cheney told the friendly audience at AIPAC. "When those red lines aren't there, when our enemies like Iran and Syria begin to believe that they can act with impunity, you see situations like you have got in Lebanon today -- where Hezbollah now has a veto over that government, where Hezbollah will be able, I fear, to significantly continue its efforts to rearm in southern Lebanon, continue to threaten Israel and allow Iran a real chokehold on the region."

Cheney offered critiques in a number of key areas. One was the decision, which went all the way up to President Bush, to push Israel to allow elections in the Palestinian territories, which ultimately led to Hamas taking power in Gaza.

"The United States was fundamentally mistaken to push for those Palestinian elections in Gaza," Cheney said, drawing applause. "I think that at the time there wasn't anybody that I spoke to in the Palestinian government . . . or the Israeli government who thought those elections were a good idea."

At another point, Cheney appeared to suggest that it was a mistake for the United States to invite Syria to participate in last November's Annapolis conference: "It makes it much easier for the Europeans, for example, to say, 'Well, look, if you're not isolating Syria, if you are inviting the Syrians to Annapolis for a peace conference, why should we isolate the Syrians?' "

Cheney also made clear her view that the recent efforts by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are taking resources away from dealing with Iran. She described a "misguided attempt right now to come to an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when I don't believe the Palestinians are ready for such an agreement."

As for Iran, Cheney seemed pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Over the years, she said, there has been "no shortage of efforts to talk to them" -- but to no avail: "We don't have the luxury to have the debate we have been having about should we talk, should we not talk. The time for diplomacy here is rapidly coming to an end."

Asked to comment, a spokeswoman said the vice president "supports the president's policies on the Middle East."

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