Part one of the interview can be read here.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, talking about the failures of the Obama administration, went through a list of mistakes made in individual crises and countries. But what is striking is the degree to which he sees these as interconnected problems and the central problem that is President Obama’s world view.
On Iraq, he said, “When we left it was in pretty good shape, especially after the surge. Even Obama said it was stable, that it had been stable. The situation has developed in part because there was no stay-behind force. . . . Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Gen. [David] Petraeus, Gen. [Ray] Odierno kept [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] on the straight and narrow. After we left, he purged Sunni commanders from the military and installed his own cronies in there.” In essence, Maliki fatally undermined his own military.
“We saw what happened,” Cheney said, in reference to the ease with which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria overran the Iraqi army. As for what we do next, he said, “I start from the proposition it is not just about Iraq. We need to reverse Obama policy on defense, dramatically rebuild our armed forces. For years, we had a policy that our military had to be able to fight two wars. He reversed that. We need to go back to it.” On a broader level he said, “We need to recognize the single most important responsibility of the president of the United States is in Article 2 of the Constitution: he is the commander in chief. We need to recognize that and that the threat we face is more dangerous than what we faced before 9/11.”
Unlike the caricature that he wants the United States continually to “go to war,” he suggested a much more inclusive approach. “We need a strategy to help us to help the locals in these places. We need to work with moderates and with the existing governments that we find acceptable and dramatically rebuild our military-to-military relationships to struggle against a common enemy, the common enemy being the jihadists who want to set up a 7th century Caliphate. That ought to be a prime focus for this administration, for any administration.” Later, he said about the pullout from Iraq, “Our military commanders came to the White House and said they needed a stay-behind force of 18,000-20,000. ‘No.’ Then they came back and asked for 10,000. The answer again was ‘No.’ I think we got down to 3,000 to 4000. The Iraqis concluded, ‘This isn’t serious.’ ”
Likewise in Syria, he said, “The right answer in Syria would have been to act early. Understand some of this is in hindsight but . . . the developments in Syria involved the Free Syrian Army. These were not jihadist terrorists. It was possible to identify them as a reasonable group and to be in a position where we should have supported them with training, weapons, equipment, etc.” Syria and Iraq are connected, of course. It is believed that ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Cheney told me, “We had al-Qaeda basically out of Iraq in 2007-2008. They ended up in Syria. One of the things I think about was that the Israelis came to us in the spring of 2007 with pictures of a nuclear plant Assad was building out in the desert. It was a good thing the Israelis took it out because that whole area is controlled by ISIS. If the Israelis had not acted we would have a much more serious situation.”
Then there is Iran. Cheney said the problem there is that “they don’t take Obama seriously.” He told me, “He never draws a line. Whenever there is a crisis, the first thing he does is announce what we won’t do about it. He does it every single time. That’s bad in so many ways.” In his view, Iran has learned to ignore the president. “In Iran from the start there was no follow through. They think they can drag out the negotiations and get very, very close to [getting] a nuclear bomb. It doesn’t matter what Obama says.” The problem of course will not stop with Iran. “I’m convinced if Iran does in fact attain a nuclear capability there will others.”
The same lack of credibility hobbles our ability to protect Europe. “I was very concerned at the time about Georgia,” he said about the Russian incursion and continued occupation. “Putin has made it pretty clear he views the demise of the Soviet Union as one the great tragedies.” Even after Putin grabbed part of Georgia, Cheney said, ‘There was the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with that big reset button, smiling. We heard Obama on an open mik tell [then-Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev that ‘I’ll have more flexibility after the election.’ ” All these signals encouraged Putin, in Cheney’s view. Then, “The president basically scrapped a deal [for anti-missile defense units] with the Poles and the Czechs. These were NATO countries and Obama let the Russians dictate that relationship.” He remarked wryly, “After a while all this stuff starts to add up.” Now, Putin winds up writing op-eds in the New York Times, lecturing the United States and becoming “the go-to guy” as Cheney says, in the region.
This brings us back to Obama’s world view. Cheney is plainly incredulous. “It’s naive. It’s not the way the world works. He apologizes for the U.S. and says we overreacted after 9/11. Obama’s world view seems to be operating under the presumption that the U.S. is the trouble maker.” Cheney said that since World War II there was a bipartisan consensus — “even Jimmy Carter” woke up after Afghanistan, he interjected — that the United States should be the preeminent power. “I don’t believe Barack Obama shares that world view.”
A number of things have turned the bipartisan management of foreign policy upside down, in Cheney’s view. Rather than the chief of staff or secretaries of defense or state making policy, he sees it run by a tight circle of people. “There’s Valerie Jarrett. There’s Susan Rice. There’s Michelle — now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking advice from your wife. But this is a really unconventional arrangement.” Likewise, Obama’s ineptitude has gotten Cheney thinking about the relationship between Congress and the White House. “I’ve been a noted advocate of a strong commander in chief,” he said, deadpan. “With every fiber of my being I believe in a strong president. But this may be the exception that proves the rule.” He thinks it’s critical for Congress, certainly if the Republicans win the Senate, to step up on national security, especially on the defense budget.
His worry goes beyond one president or a few people in the GOP. When it comes to insisting on treating the war against jihadists as a criminal justice matter or leaving the Middle East to its own devices, he said, “That kind of attitude serves to move public opinion.” That’s only one of the reasons Cheney wants to be “part of the debate” in 2016. “It’s not so much candidates, but policy,” he said. “I’m not endorsing anyone and I don’t plan to endorse anyone. On the other hand, as I look at candidates at the top of my list is whether the person understands these issues.”
I asked him if he had a reaction when former President Bush’s poll numbers crossed with Obama’s. “I don’t worry about our standing. It is what it is. I had the luxury as vice president [of being] someone not running for president so I didn’t worry about approval-disapproval.” He continued, “You do have to look at [polls] from the standpoint of building public opinion. But I don’t think a lot about it.” He said, “I think we did a good job. Our main objective was to keep America safe. We did that for 7 1/2 years.” As for Obama, Cheney said pointedly, “If he relies on polls [to measure success] I think he’ll be disappointed. If he relies on the effectiveness of his policies, he’ll be disappointed, from my standpoint.”