A man with a reputation for secrecy and seclusion, Vice President Dick Cheney has spent the past few months out in public. He campaigned in the midterm elections, traveled to Saudi Arabia to talk security and eulogized former president Gerald Ford. Last week the perjury trial of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr., exposed what Libby's lawyer cast as tensions between aides to Cheney and President George W. Bush during the CIA press leak in 2003. In his first print interview since the GOP lost control of Congress, Cheney spoke to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe. Excerpts:
CHENEY: We've got a lot of people who want to judge the success of the Maliki administration after some nine months in office. I think it's a little premature. He has been direct and forthright in responding to our concerns. There is some evidence that he's already beginning to act--for example, Iraqi forces rounding up as many as 600 members of the Jaish-al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] in the last couple of weeks. His commitment to us is to go after those who are responsible for the violence, whoever they may be--whether they're Baathist or ... Shia militia or criminal elements. At this stage, we don't have any reason to doubt him.
Well, I think it's a concern that the current level of sectarian violence would increase, and perhaps break out in other parts of the country. It's pretty well concentrated right now in the Baghdad area. It clearly would have, I think, consequences on a regional basis in terms of the efforts that we've mounted not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ... All of a sudden, the United States, which is the bulwark of security in that part of the world, would no longer--could no longer--be counted on by our friends and allies that have put so much into this struggle.
There's widespread concern throughout the region about Iran, and in particular Iran under [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. A lot of people in the area--I don't want to attribute this to any one particular government--but a lot of people in the area feel directly threatened.
I haven't seen that. Most of the nations in that part of the world believe their security is supported, if you will, by the United States. They want us to have a major presence there. When we--as the president did, for example, recently--deploy another aircraft-carrier task force to the gulf, that sends a very strong signal to everybody in the region that the United States is here to stay, that we clearly have significant capabilities and that we are working with friends and allies as well as the international organizations to deal with the Iranian threat.
I'm not going to speculate about security action. We are doing what we can to try to resolve issues, such as the nuclear question, diplomatically through the United Nations. But we've also made it clear that we haven't taken any options off the table.
The election results last November obviously represented a blow to our friends on the Hill, Republicans on the Hill--to go from majority to minority status. A lot of members were concerned or felt that their political fortunes were adversely affected by our ongoing operations in Iraq. What's happened here now over the last few weeks is that the president has shored up his position with the speech he made specifically on Iraq.
It's not the first time.
I thought that Joe Lieberman's comments ... were very important. Joe basically said the plan deserved an opportunity to succeed ... that we're sending Gen. [David] Petraeus out with probably a unanimous or near-unanimous [confirmation] vote, and that it didn't make sense for Congress to simultaneously then pass a resolution disapproving of the strategy in Iraq.
Let's say I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.
The comments I made were based on the best information we had. There's no question that the struggle has gone on longer than we anticipated, especially in Baghdad ... It does not, though, lead me to conclude that what we're doing in terms of our overall effort, taking down Saddam Hussein's regime, standing up a new democracy in Iraq, isn't a worthy objective. I think it is. I think we have made significant progress. There's still a lot more to do--no question about it. The conflict we're involved in--not just Iraq, but on the broader basis against Al Qaeda, against the threat that's represented by the extreme elements of Islam on a global basis now--is going to go on for a long time. And it's not something that's going to end decisively, and there's not going to be a day when we can say, "There, now we have a treaty, problem solved." It's a problem that I think will occupy our successors maybe for two or three or four administrations to come. It is an existential conflict.
Well, I have my own personal view. Obviously, there was flawed intelligence prior to the war ... but we should not let the fact of past problems in that area lead us to ignore the threat we face today and in the future. It would be a huge mistake. In terms of whether or not it adversely affected public opinion, I think it clearly did, but that does not lead me to conclude that we didn't do the right thing when we went into Iraq and took down Saddam Hussein's regime.
By the time I leave here, it will have been over 40 years since I arrived in Washington, and I've been praised when I didn't deserve it, and probably criticized when I didn't deserve it. And there aren't enough hours in the day for me to spend a lot of time worrying about my image.
I'm not going to talk about the trial, obviously.
Sorry, I'm not going to discuss it.
I was delighted to see the outpouring of tributes to his leadership ... and praise for the tough, tough decisions he made--in particular, for example, the pardon. I reflected back on where we'd been 30 years ago when he made those decisions and, obviously, suffered for it in the public-opinion polls and the press, and how history judged him 30 years later very, very favorably because of what he'd done. He had displayed those qualities of leadership and decisiveness, steadfastness, if you will, in the face of political opposition.
There may well be.
I've never heard that from anybody but Bob Woodward.
Well, I'm vice president and they're not.