washingtonpost.com
Cheney on the Warpath Again?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 11, 2008 1:02 PM

Vice President Cheney went on right-wing talk radio yesterday with a dramatic new argument for preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, casting the Iranian leadership as apocalyptic zealots who yearn for a nuclear conflagration.

Cheney also notably refused to comment about any recent conversations he may have had with Israeli leaders about the possibility of their bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Some observers suspect Cheney of encouraging Israel to attack Iran as a proxy.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has it that Cheney and other supporters of military action against Iran were sidelined after a National Intelligence Estimate last November reported that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

But the vice president sounded anything but chastened yesterday, speaking with two of his favorite media enablers. In fact, he sounded like the NIE never happened.

Here he is talking to Sean Hannity:

Hannity: "What did you make of Senator Barack Obama's comments that he would talk to [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who's repeatedly threatened to blow up and remove Israel from the state -- from the map, the world map, and obviously is pursuing some nuclear capability?"

Cheney: "Well, he is, and I think the position we've taken with respect to that is that we would be prepared to talk when they stopped enriching uranium. Of course, they've never met that condition, so we haven't had talks at that level.

"But Ahmadinejad is I think a very dangerous man. On the one hand, he has repeatedly stated that he wants to destroy Israel. He also has -- is a man who believes in the return of the 12th Imam; and that the highest honor that can befall a man is that he should die a martyr in facilitating the return of the 12th Imam.

"It's a radical, radical point of view. Bernard Lewis once said, mutual assured destruction in the Soviet-U.S. relationship in the Cold War meant deterrence, but mutual assured destruction with Ahmadinejad is an incentive. You have to be concerned about that."

The 12th Imam? What's that about? Just over two hours later, Hugh Hewitt was happy to indulge Cheney on that very issue.

Hewitt: "Do you -- Mr. Vice President, do you have a personal sense of whether or not the Iranian leadership is actually motivated by this end-times, bring-back-the-12th-Imam sort of theology that we've read so much about?"

Cheney: "Well, I've read about it, too. I don't know that that motivates all of the leadership. The one guy who talks about it repeatedly is Ahmadinejad. And -- in other words, a report even at one point that when he went to Iraq on a visit, that at least on one occasion, he insisted on there being a vacant chair at the table for the 12th Imam. And it's a -- it's hard to tell. I mean, if I look at what his beliefs supposedly are, the allegation that the -- a return of the 12th Imam is something to be much desired, and that the best contribution that a man can make is to die a martyr facilitating that return, and all that goes with it -- I always think of Bernard Lewis, who said that mutual assured destruction during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviets meant peace and stability and deterrence, but mutual assured destruction in the hands of Ahmadinejad may just be an incentive. It's a worrisome proposition."

Hewitt: "If they actually possess nuclear weapons, do you think they're deterable in the way that the Soviets were, or is that what you're getting at, that they might actually use them because it's part of the theological justification for their -- "

Cheney: "Well, I think we have to be careful, obviously -- it's a difficult kind of a judgment to make. I think we do have an obligation to listen to what they're saying. And there's a great temptation, when he says truly outrageous things, for example, about the destruction of Israel, for people to write that off and say, well, he doesn't mean it, it's just rhetoric. But you can't do that. And I certainly am -- I know the Israelis well enough, and I was just there a couple of weeks ago, to know there isn't any way they're prepared to ignore those kinds of statements coming out of Tehran. They have to take them seriously, given their history. And I think they perceive the possibility of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as a fundamental threat to the very survival of the state of Israel."

Hewitt: "Did you talk with the Israelis in any way you can discuss about action against Israel -- against Iran's nuclear capability?"

Cheney: "No, I couldn't talk about those matters here."

The 12th Imam

Cheney's talk of the 12th Imam marks his revival of an old neocon chestnut.

The 12th Imam, or the mahdi, is considered by devout Shiite Muslims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed who disappeared in the ninth century and will reappear before judgment day to end tyranny and promote justice.

The man Cheney cites as an authority on Iranian apocalyptic thinking, controversial mideast scholar Bernard Lewis, hinted in an Aug. 8, 2006, Wall Street Journal op-ed that Ahmadinejad might be planning a nuclear attack on Israel just two weeks later, on the date in the Islamic calendar when the Prophet Muhammad made his mystical journey to Jerusalem.

"This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world," Lewis wrote. "It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind."

Needless to say, the day went by without incident.

Noah Feldman wrote in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 29, 2006, that "the relative absence of a contemporary Shiite trend to messianic brinkmanship suggests that Ahmadinejad's recent emphasis on the mahdi may be interpreted more in terms of an attempt to summon [Ayotollah] Khomeini's legacy and Iran's revolutionary moment than as a desperate willingness to bring the nation to the edge of war. . . .

"Ahmadinejad surely understands the consequences of using a nuclear bomb, and Shiite Islam, even in its messianic incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide."

As for Wiping Israel Off the Map

Back in March, William Branigin of The Washington Post shed some light on the administration's continued insistence that the Iranian government had expressed its desire to wipe Israel off the map.

Branigin wrote: "In an October 2005 speech to a conference on a 'World without Zionism,' Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by a state-run Iranian news agency as agreeing with a statement by Iran's late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that 'Israel must be wiped off the map.' Iran's foreign minister later said the comment had been incorrectly translated from Farsi and that Ahmadinejad was 'talking about the [Israeli] regime,' which Iran does not recognize and wants to see collapse.

"According to Farsi-speaking commentators including Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, Ahmadinejad's exact quote was, 'The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.' Cole has written that Ahmadinejad was not calling for the 'Nazi-style extermination of a people,' but was expressing the wish that the Israeli government would disappear just as the shah of Iran's regime had collapsed in 1979."

Whither U.S. Policy?

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration has been divided over Iran policy almost since the day the president took office and, according to a variety of officials, it remains so today.

"One faction, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and including a sprinkling of officials at the Pentagon, State Department and elsewhere, has argued that before Bush leaves office in January, the administration should use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and punish Iran for supporting international terrorism and thwarting U.S. aims in Iraq. . . .

"A second faction, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and much of the uniformed military and the intelligence community, opposes military strikes in favor of continued sanctions, diplomatic pressure and talks with Iran under certain conditions.

"This faction appears, for now, to retain the upper hand."

Well, maybe.

AFP's Olivier Knox notes that Bush overtly threatened Iran yesterday in his speech about Iraq.

Knox writes: "Bush on Thursday lumped Iran with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group as 'two of the greatest threats to America in this new century.' . . .

Bush "coupled the rhetorical blast with a clear warning that he would not hesitate to use force if the Islamic republic targets US interests in its strife-torn neighbor. . . .

"Iran 'has a choice to make. It can live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties. Or it can continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups, which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran,' he said.

"'If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners,' he said."

Knox notes a history of hyperbole from Bush on this topic. "It was far from the first time that the deeply unpopular US president has dramatically described Iraq as the front line against Tehran and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network as he works to revive anemic US support for the war.

"In August 2007, Bush warned that Iran's suspect atomic program threatened to place the entire Middle East 'under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.'

"In October 2007, Bush told world leaders that preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons was necessary 'if you're interested in avoiding World War III.'

"On two occasions, in March 2008 and in August 2007, Bush wrongly asserted that Iran had openly declared that it wants nuclear weapons. The White House later said he had erred. . . .

"Bush has refused to rule out using force in the nuclear standoff, fueling worries that he will attack Iran -- which he famously called part of an 'axis of evil' with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- before leaving office.

"In October, US Vice President Dick Cheney stoked those concerns when he warned Iran to suspend uranium enrichment or face 'serious consequences' -- the very language in the UN resolution on Iraq that the White House says justified the March 2003 invasion."

Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's focus on Iran, while not new, reflected deepening concerns in the administration and the Pentagon about suspected Iranian support for some extremists. They say that support became increasingly evident late last month during the indecisive Iraqi operation to wrest control of Basra from Shiite militias and more recently in a spate of rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad."

And the neocons are clearly restless.

Matt Corley writes for ThinkProgress.org: "On his radio show this morning, Bill Bennett told the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol -- who had a personal meeting with President Bush yesterday -- that a 'conclusion' he drew was that the hearing was 'less an argument for getting out of Iraq than going into Iran.' After suggesting that Iran may 'have to pay some price at some point on their own soil,' Kristol said that President Bush authorizing an attack of some kind before he leaves office is not 'out of the question'":

Bennett: "Do you think there's any chance that, and we won't ask you to reveal anything confidential, do you think there's any chance that we might take some action against some aspect of the Ira -- against Iran, let's put it that way, before the president leaves office?"

Kristol: "We didn't really talk about that, in all honesty, directly. I don't think it's out of the question. I think people are overdoing how much of a lame duck the president is."

Meanwhile, Charles Krauthammer takes a slightly different but also alarming tack in his Washington Post opinion column. Citing the "apocalyptic and messianic" views of the Iranian leaders, he endorses a form of deterrence that could actually increase tensions. Krauthammer writes: "President Bush's greatest contribution to nuclear peace would be to issue the following declaration . . .: 'It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran.'"

What seems to be a new drumbeat for military action has thus far remained under the radar of the mainstream media. When my colleagues do take notice, I hope they point out that the advocates of a strike against Iran are the same people who enthusiastically advocated the invasion of Iraq, making similarly authoritative-sounding declarations about the uselessness of diplomacy and the easy triumph of military might.

Opinion Watch

The USA Today editorial board writes: "The Iraq war has featured a changing cast of U.S. adversaries. Saddam Hussein. Sunni insurgents. Foreign fighters. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"In the latest shift, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, focused in this week's congressional testimony on 'special groups' -- Iranian-backed militias -- as the greatest long-term threat to Iraqi democracy.

"On Thursday, President Bush endorsed the officials' troop recommendations and again recast the enemy. Iraq, he said toward the end of his speech, is 'the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al-Qaeda and Iran.'

"There's no question that al-Qaeda and Iran represent threats. But to conflate the two is disingenuous and misleading. . . .

"Iran is a strategic adversary that hasn't attacked the U.S. homeland. Its engagement with Iraq, its neighbor, is inevitable. . . .

"[T]he United States and Iran are facing off in a duel almost as complex as that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This requires a whole range of tools, beyond Bush's bellicose warning on Thursday that Tehran 'has a choice to make.' . . .

"Sunni al-Qaeda and Shiite Iran pose different challenges and require separate strategies. About the only thing they have in common is that neither would have a foothold in Iraq today had the United States not invaded and then mismanaged the aftermath."

Torture Watch

The Associated Press confirms and expands on ABC News's blockbuster revelation Wednesday that top Bush aides, including Cheney, micromanaged the torture of terrorist suspects from the White House basement. (See yesterday's column.)

The new report from Lara Jakes Jordan and Pamela Hess adds this indelible image: "At times, CIA officers would demonstrate some of the tactics, or at least detail how they worked, to make sure the small group of 'principals' fully understood what the al-Qaida detainees would undergo. The principals eventually authorized physical abuse such as slaps and pushes, sleep deprivation, or waterboarding."

Jordan and Hess also write: "The officials also took care to insulate President Bush from a series of meetings where CIA interrogation methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning, were discussed and ultimately approved.

"A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the meetings described them Thursday to the AP to confirm details first reported by ABC News on Wednesday. . . .

"Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., lambasted what he described as 'yet another astonishing disclosure about the Bush administration and its use of torture.'

"'Who would have thought that in the United States of America in the 21st century, the top officials of the executive branch would routinely gather in the White House to approve torture?' Kennedy said in a statement. 'Long after President Bush has left office, our country will continue to pay the price for his administration's renegade repudiation of the rule of law and fundamental human rights.'

"The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to investigate.

"'With each new revelation, it is beginning to look like the torture operation was managed and directed out of the White House,' ACLU legislative director Caroline Fredrickson said. 'This is what we suspected all along.'"

Legal blogger Jack Balkin, who on Wednesday dismissed the notion of domestic prosecution of Bush administration officials for war crimes, yesterday mulled another possibility instead: "A series of congressional investigations into the interrogation and detention policies of the previous Administration, or a special Presidential 'truth commission' like the 9/11 Commission would have certain advantages. They would require only that the next Administration cooperate with Congress-- for example, by declassifying certain OLC opinions and other documents that should never have been classified, and by giving permission for certain executive branch officials to testify before Congress."

Bush Approval Hits Another Low

No place to go but up just doesn't seem to apply to this president. Two new polls find Bush's job approval at all-time lows, with Gallup finding that Bush has dropped below his father's all-time low, has tied Jimmy Carter's all-time low, and looks good only by comparison to Richard Nixon and Harry Truman at their nadirs.

Frank Newport reports for Gallup: "President George W. Bush's job approval rating has dropped to 28%, the lowest of his administration. . . .

"Bush's low rating in the current poll is the result of an extraordinarily low average approval rating from Democrats, a low level of support from independents, and support from just two-thirds of his base of Republicans. . . .

"Bush's current 28% job approval rating is at the very low end of the spectrum of approval ratings Gallup has recorded across the 11 presidents in office since World War II."

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press: "Public approval of President Bush has dipped to a new low in the Associated Press-Ipsos poll, driven by dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy.

"A survey released Thursday showed 28 percent approve of the overall job Bush is doing. . . .

"Highlighting Bush's broad unpopularity, 60 percent of Republicans approved of his overall job, his weakest showing yet with members of his own party. Just 7 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of independents approve."

Iraq Watch

Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "With Bush effectively freezing troop levels at 140,000 in August, Congress moved to challenge him on two fronts. Democratic leaders prepared to amend war-funding legislation to limit his options and to direct money to domestic priorities, while lawmakers from both parties took on his plan to sign a strategic agreement with Iraq that would outlast his presidency. . . .

"One confrontation centers on Bush's effort to negotiate a long-term 'strategic framework' agreement with Iraq this summer without congressional approval. The U.N. mandate that provides a legal basis for foreign troops operating in Iraq is set to expire at the end of the year, and the administration wants the framework and a related 'status of forces' agreement to govern the U.S. engagement in the new year.

"But lawmakers from both parties said Bush is trying to dictate war policy after he leaves office, and they maintained that an agreement with such enormous consequences should be submitted to the Senate for ratification as a treaty. At a rancorous Senate hearing, Republicans warned that they would join Democrats in fighting the pact."

Karen DeYoung has more in The Post about the two accords under negotiation -- and the congressional concerns.

The Speech

I wrote a bit about Bush's speech on the war in Iraq in yesterday's column.

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate that "the main question at this point is whether he instructed the speechwriters to be mendacious or merely shallow."

For instance: "'Gen. Petraeus has reported,' Bush said today, 'that security conditions have improved enough to withdraw all five surge brigades by the end of July.'

"I hope a few people on the speechwriting team blushed when they penned this passage. Those five surge brigades were going to pull out this July no matter what the situation in Iraq happened to be. Their 15-month tours of deployment will be up by then; they will go home; the Army has no combat brigades ready to replace them. This was always the calculation. It's the product of arithmetic, not policy."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The administration and its supporters talk incessantly about winning but offer no strategy for victory, no definition of what victory would look like, no concrete steps to get us there and no real sense of where 'there' is. . . .

"Supporters of the war say its opponents are locked in the past, stuck on whether the war was a good idea in the first place. Whether the war was right or wrong, they say, it's time to move on and focus on the future.

"This has it backward. It's the war's backers and architects, including the president, who are trapped in the past. They are so invested in the original decision to invade Iraq that they won't even consider whether the United States would be better off winding down this commitment, relieving our military of the war's enormous burdens and redirecting our foreign policy."

Not Exactly on the Same Page

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, accepting the recommendation of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to halt the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in July, said Thursday that he would give the war commander 'all the time he needs' to decide on future troop cuts.

"But in a surprising show of public concern about an open-ended U.S. commitment, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a Senate hearing that he hoped to resume troop reductions soon after a 'brief' 45-day pause this summer.

"Gates' comments, along with similar testimony from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were in stark contrast to those of Petraeus, who spent two days this week on Capitol Hill telling lawmakers that it could be months before conditions in Iraq permitted further troop withdrawals.

"Differences within the Pentagon over the issue have been brewing for months, but rarely have they been aired publicly. Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee seized on the contrasts, prompting Gates to acknowledge that there is a difference in the way he and Petraeus view troop levels."

On Permanent Bases

Here's a little item to clip and save.

The Washington Post reports: "The Bush administration has assured Congress that it does not seek to establish 'permanent' U.S. military bases in Iraq. But an exchange yesterday among Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield and Assistant Defense Secretary Mary Beth Long at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing suggests that permanence lies in the mind of the beholder:

"Webb: What is a permanent base?

"Satterfield: Senator, the administration has made quite clear that we are not seeking permanent bases in Iraq. . . .

"Webb: Right. But what is a permanent base? Are our bases in Japan permanent bases?

"Long: I have looked into this. As far as the department is concerned, we don't have a worldwide or even a department-wide definition of permanent bases. I believe those are, by and large, determined on a case-by-case basis. . . .

"Webb: Well, I understand that. But basically my point is it's sort of a dead word. It doesn't really mean anything.

"Long: Yes, Senator, you're completely right. It doesn't."

Executive Privilege Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's refusal to let two confidants provide information to Congress about fired federal prosecutors represents the most expansive view of executive privilege since Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee told a federal judge Thursday.

"Lawyers for the Democratic-led panel argued in court documents that Bush's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers are not protected from subpoenas last year that sought information about the dismissals. . . .

"House lawyers told U.S. District Judge John D. Bates that subpoenaed White House officials cannot simply skip hearings as Miers did during the committee's investigation. Further, they said, any documents or testimony believed to be covered by the privilege must be itemized for Congress' assessment."

Cheney and the Naked Lady

Kevin G. Hall and George Bridges write for McClatchy Newspapers: "He shot his hunting partner, but Vice President Dick Cheney apparently doesn't fly fish with naked women.

"Since Wednesday, the blogosphere has been atwitter over a photograph on the White House Web site of Cheney with a caption that said he was fly-fishing on the Snake River in Idaho.

"The photo is a tight shot of Cheney's face sporting dark sunglasses and his trademark grin.

"What's stirring all the buzz is the reflection in the vice president's dark glasses. Some thought that the reflection looked like a naked woman and, this being Cheney and this being the Internet Age, they immediately shared that thought with the world."

Me, I see Cheney's arm and hand, holding a fishing rod.

Cartoon Watch

An Ann Telnaes animation on what Bush really means; Walt Handelsman on what the pause really means; Jeff Danziger on the view from the ground; Daniel Wasserman on the new insurgency; Larry Wright, Richard Crowson, Jimmy Margulies and Ed Stein on exit strategy; Bruce Beattie on progress.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive