Dick Cheney, Hard-Liner in Chief

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George W. Bush gave yet another speech last week defending his Administration's war in Iraq. Actually, it was the same Old speech—the same Western aw-shucks-isms ("We're on the hunt"), the same complexities avoided. The President is beginning to sound pretty defensive—with good reason: he's been playing defense since July. As he said last week, "Wars are won on the offensive." So are second terms.

The President's rut reflects a gathering dysfunction in his Administration. The White House seems paralyzed, unable to stanch the political, diplomatic and actual bleeding over Iraq. There are turf wars everywhere. The CIA is at war with the White House; the Pentagon is at war with the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC); some elements of the uniformed military are furious with the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, partly for launching the attack against Iraq in the first place without enough allied support. The fault lines are largely between moderate diplomatic and military traditionalists and more aggressive neoconservatives and nationalists.

The Administration's exposure of a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame, was unprecedented, but at last week's Cabinet meeting, the President shrugged and said he didn't think the leaker would be caught. His apparent nonchalance is outrageous. Plame was integral to the CIA's effort to suss out the movement of weapons of mass destruction—ground zero in the war on terror.

As for the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld—who is beginning to resemble Humphrey Bogart's unhinged Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny—lost his temper last week at the news that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was, finally, trying to coordinate the government's reconstruction efforts in Iraq. He said he hadn't been consulted in advance. He implied that Rice's effort wasn't very important, anyway. Rumors of a Pentagon boycott of the process began to bubble when the political, economic and counterterrorism group meetings were either canceled or held without civilian Pentagon participation. An NSC source offered the plausible argument that these were just logistical problems with a new process. But the instantaneous rumors were typical of the Administration's foreign-policy mess.

Republicans turf-wrestling like infants, playing fast and loose with national-security secrets, tripping over themselves in the rebuilding of Iraq? Weren't these guys supposed to be the grownups? Isn't the President supposed to have a bureaucratic neatness fetish? Given his famous impatience—and his very quick temper—why hasn't Bush taken control? I asked members of the first Bush and Reagan administrations about this. At first, they professed mystification, but then, after some consideration, they pointed fingers at one man: Dick Cheney.

Cheney is, of course, the hardest of the hard-liners—and his intransigence is responsible for both the CIA's fury and the Pentagon leadership's arrogance. Cheney and his low-profile neoconservative chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, have been stalking the CIA for years. They have disputed the agency's negative findings on an Iraq attempt to buy African uranium and an Iraq involvement in 9/11. The failures of American intelligence have been a Cheney obsession—which is why Republican Senator Chuck Hagel recently suggested that if the President really wants to know who the White House leakers are, he should "sit down" with his Vice President. Cheney's alliance with Rumsfeld has been at the heart of this Administration's hawkish, unilateral foreign-policy fantasies.

Indeed, Cheney has assumed the role that powerful National Security Advisers like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski played in the past. He has been the President's closest foreign-policy confidant. He has not merely coordinated policy, he has conceptualized it. Rumsfeld's outburst obscured the most important question raised by the President's apparent decision to give Condoleezza Rice a more prominent role in Iraq policy: Does this mean that the President is finally turning away from the Vice President?

If so, it certainly is about time. Bush's speech last week was part of an aggressive public relations effort to spread the news that things aren't so bad in Iraq—a sure sign that things aren't so good. The American military has done wonders in restoring order and building civil society in the north and south of the country. But the Sunni triangle festers, and we are one strategically placed truck bomb—or coordinated sequence of bombs—away from disaster. This sort of uncertainty should be a revelation to the Vice President. His worldview is a simple one, bereft of even the neoconservative romance with exporting democracy. He believes that America has the power to create the world it wants—whether that means going it alone in Iraq, putting Ahmed Chalabi in power there or pretending that Yasser Arafat is not the Palestinian leader. These miscalculations have diminished America's military strength, its position in the world and perhaps its national security. Cheney has all the qualities this President admires. Cheney is tough, discreet, secure in his judgments—but he has been wrong too often, and now George W. Bush must decide what he wants to do about that.