Vice President Cheney On ISIS and POTUS
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Former Vice President Cheney was my guest today, with most of the conversation focused on ISIS and POTUS, and some on 2016.
HH: Pleased to begin today’s show with the former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney. Mr. Vice President, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.
DC: Well, it’s good to talk to you, Hugh.
HH: For most of the days of the eight years that you were Vice President, you got briefed on the threats around the world aimed at the United States. Against that backdrop, how do you assess the threat posed by IS?
DC: I think it’s greater. I hark back to the 9/11 days and the immediate aftermath of that, and obviously we were very concerned, but where they’re at now with the caliphate established in part of Syria and Iraq, where they’re toppling governments or threatening to topple governments, I think that the risk is considerably greater than it was then.
HH: Do you think IS sits around trying to plot how to hit the homeland in a way that’s more spectacular than 9/11?
DC: Well, I don’t know, obviously, I don’t have any inside line there. On the other hand, if you look at their rhetoric, their program and so forth, they’re out to destroy not only Israel but the non-believers. The United States specifically is mentioned. They’re not at all subtle. They’re discreet about what their aims and objectives are. And the damage that was done by 19 guys with airlines tickets and box cutters on 9/11, you know, was significant. But when you begin to see terrorist organizations taking over and creating a sovereign state, a caliphate governed by the rules of Sharia law, and as bloody-minded as these people are, where they’re beheading people, and women and children makes no difference, this is a group that’s worse than al Qaeda ever was. al Qaeda didn’t even want to have much to do with them.
HH: Do you think we should put the so-called boots on the ground back into Kurdistan at least, Mr. Vice President?
DC: I’m a big fan of the Kurds, Hugh. I worked closely with them, visited them on more than one occasion, and dealt with them over the years, and they are about as strong a friend the United States has in that part of the world. They are fierce fighters. Their Peshmerga militia is as good as any in Iraq. Back in the day when we were dealing with them, and I would be inclined to give them whole-hearted support. I don’t know that you need boots on the ground in Kurdistan. This is a group that is highly-motivated, well-trained. What they need is equipment. They may need some additional technical support and assistance, which we ought to provide for them. But I don’t think you need to send U.S. troops into Kurdistan at this point. I think they can take care of themselves if they have the support we can give them.
HH: Now Qatar is funding Hamas, and apparently, according to Bloomberg News yesterday, is funding radical Sunni elements, which appear to be IS-connected. What is that all about? Qatar used to be our ally.
DC: Well, it’s a strange deal with Qatar. On the one hand, we’ve got a major base out, up there in the northern part of Qatar, our biggest base in the region. And it may not be as big as Inserlich up in Turkey, but it’s a significant base, and we’ve had it there for some time. But at the same time, the Qatarese have, are widely known in that part of the world as being supporters of the more radical elements of Islam. When I traveled through their country in March out there, and talked to our traditional friends in the Saudis, Emirates, Egyptians and so forth, they all believe that the Qatarese are the prime financial sponsor of the radical Islamist movement throughout that part of the world. Hamas right now in Israel, but also elements in Libya and in Egypt that they are viewed without a doubt as the prime financial backers. About the time I was there in March, the Saudis broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. That’s how serious it is.
HH: Now yesterday, I had Soledad O’Brien on, and she works for, takes money from Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar. I don’t want to be specific and ask you to criticize Soledad O’Brien, but should American journalists be working for a Qatar-owned and operated television network?
DC: You know, I don’t want to get into the business of who ought to do what in the media, Hugh. I guess Al Gore’s the one that sold them…
DC: …a significant part of that network, or most of the network there now. I found that what they did, for example, when we were operating in Iraq back in the Ford years, or the Bush years, was that the propaganda they were peddling throughout the Middle East was decidedly un-American. I had, the last time I spoke to the emir of Qatar, he’s now out of office, he’s retired, but we had a very heated argument in my office in the West Wing, and never spoke to each other again over their conduct.
HH: Well then, I’ll leave that for people to draw implications from. Let me change subjects. I’m going to come back to the Middle East in a second, but I want to ask you what you think our response to Vladimir Putin should be if indeed he invades Ukraine beyond what he has already done in the Crimea.
DC: Well, I think the very first thing we have to do is, and I think this is across the board, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the Middle East, or we’re talking about the Crimea. We need to stop the erosion and the diminution of American military power. It’s a terrible situation we’re going through right now. It’s going to have lasting consequences for ten or fifteen years. And whether you’re talking about dealing with Putin or dealing with Hamas or dealing with other nations, various places around the world and terrorist threats, we have to have the world’s best military, bar none. And what’s being done now in the name of this administration is outrageous. They’re doing terrible damage, and we, our credibility is shot. A good reason to have significant military capability and the will to use it occasionally is it gives meaning and substance to your diplomacy. But we have no credibility at all now in that part of the world, not when people have been friends of ours for 50 years or longer. And certainly, our adversaries don’t fear us, and that goes for Putin. He sees a window of opportunity here. He may take it. He may believe that Obama’s going to be around for two more years, and whatever he’s going to do, he’d better do before we get a new president, because hopefully, he won’t be as tolerant of the egregious behavior that Obama’s been.
HH: Very few people I get to talk to have actually sat down, though, and talked with Putin. You’re one of them. What’s your assessment of what drives him and what his ambitions are?
DC: He’s KGB. It struck me the first time I saw him, and it’s never changed, and certainly his conduct over the years supports that. He was a colonel in the KGB, the Soviet secret police. That’s what he was, and will be, I think, forever. And that’s the way he operates. A lot of the people around him were part of that environment, and I just think that’s the way he’s always functioned. You know, we got spoiled by Gorbachev, who turned out to be a guy who didn’t always agree with him, but you know, he moved things a long way towards the ultimate breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But there was no guarantee that his successor was going to be committed to freedom and democracy, and obviously Putin is a lot more like the old guard in the Soviet Union than he is like Gorbachev and the people who are part of Glasnost and the opening up, if you will, back in the 90s.
HH: Andropov-like. In fact, Andropov did not last very long…
DC: That’s right.
HH: …but I’m sure you were around when he was in for a period of time, and he was the scariest of them all.
DC: Well, he’s the guy who liked jazz and drank scotch.
HH: Yeah. But he also was…
DC: And therefore, we were, you know, to deem him some kind of potential more friendly character. And of course, as you say, he wasn’t in power very long. He died. But…
HH: He was KGB as well. On Friday, Charles Krauthammer said on this show that President Obama is “strategically clueless.” Do you agree with that?
DC: Yes, absolutely. I think as I look back on it, Hugh, and I didn’t always agree with everybody, obviously, but I think American presidents since World War II, Republican and Democrat alike, for the most part, there are some exceptions in terms of how aggressively they pursued them, there’s a general consensus that the world’s a better place when the U.S. is strong, and we’ve got friends and allies, and we’re prepared to act to support them and to demonstrate that strength. I don’t think Obama believes any of that. And I think he’s dead set against it. I think he believes that the United States is part of the problem in the world, and the best thing he can do is gut our Defense budget, reduce our footprint in the Middle East and elsewhere, reset the relationship with Russia, that really worked out well for us. I just don’t think he has the same fundamental sort of beliefs that most of our presidents have held over the years.
HH: Now in a much overlooked interview in January, David Remnick of the New Yorker sat down with President Obama, and President Obama said to him that, he was talking about ISIS. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think it’s accurate, is this is a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms. That doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, according to Remnick, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” Do you think he gets it, yet?
DC: Well, the only thing I can conclude is he’s probably not reading his intelligence, or we’ve got a bigger problem in terms of the quality of the intelligence he is receiving. I mean, to suggest that this is the jayvee, they’ve gone much farther than al Qaeda had, not in terms of a direct attack upon the United States, but al Qaeda was hiding out in caves in Afghanistan. And they did mount a significant attack against the United States. No question about it. But to suggest that these guys are just involved in local conflicts, I can’t believe he’s listening to the briefings that I would expect he’s received from the intelligence community and can come out with a statement like that. It shows the depth of his, I guess is, his lack of knowledge, shall we say.
HH: Jake Tapper interviewed deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken, on Friday. I want to play the audio of that for you, Mr. Vice President Cheney. Here it is.
JT: Tony, you say you’ve been warning about it, but in January, President Obama told the New Yorker Magazine’s David Remnick that ISIS, which was then still considered a part of al Qaeda fighting in Syria, was like a jayvee basketball team. He said, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Just how badly did President Obama underestimate the threat of ISIS?
TB: No, there are two different things going on here, Jake. One is the question of the threat that ISIS poses to us here in the homeland. And unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq, and a base from which over time to operate. And that’s what we’re focused on. We are focused on making sure that we can help empower the Iraqis and others to prevent them from doing just that. The President was exactly right. They did not pose a threat like al Qaeda central to us in the homeland. We want to make sure that they don’t get to the point where they can pose that threat.
HH: Mr. Vice President, the President was exactly right? Do you think there are any serious people left? I mean, Ben Rhodes, Tony Blinken, these are all nice, young guys, but I wonder if they’ve really got any kind of strategic depth on the National Security Council there.
DC: Yeah, if they do, they don’t listen to it, is my general sense. I’ve asked a lot of people over the years, Hugh, that basic question of who does the President listen to. You know, are the experts, the guys that know this business, are they in fact getting through to him? And I don’t think they are. Or I think if he gets bad news, he ignores it or chooses not to listen to it, or he wants to interpret ISIS as the jayvee. You know, I hear that supposedly, he’s close to and seeks advice obviously from Michelle Obama, and most of us listen to our wives on various and sundry subjects, but then Valerie Jarrett and I guess Susan Rice are the other two principals. But that the others, the cabinet members and so forth have considerable difficulty making an impact.
HH: His former Secretary of State Clinton sort of blasted him, even though she walked it back today. This is Jake Tapper reading her quote on today’s Lead.
JT: The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protest against Bashar al-Assad left a big vacuum which the jihadists, read ISIS, have now filled.
HH: Is it credible for Hillary Clinton to be attacking Barack Obama, Mr. Cheney?
DC: I don’t know. She’s lived with Bill for a long time. Maybe some of that rubbed off, too. You know, I’m sure she’s as interested in putting distance between herself and Obama as are an awful lot of the Democratic candidates running for office this year. You know, they don’t want to be associated with the abject failure that he apparently is turning out to be.
HH: There are four names, any one of which would draw a lot of attention if they spoke about what to do in Kurdistan, and what to do about the Yazidis, and they’re named Petraeus, Mattis, Allen and McChrystal. They’re four generals that you worked closely with. Do you expect any of them to speak out of retirement to the current situation? Or does the, that very strong ethic of never criticizing the commander-in-chief even by retired generals hold true here?
DC: Well, I don’t know. I’ve got a report in front of me right now that was produced recently on the state, it’s called Ensuring A Strong U.S. Defense For The Future. And it’s a review of, well, the Quadrennial Review that the Defense Department does. But it is devastating in its critique of what’s happening in Defense now. And one of the co-chairs of it, one was Bill Perry, who had been Secretary of Defense previously, and the other is John Abizaid. John is a four star. He was our Centcom commander for some considerable period of time, Lebanese background, obviously, an American, but very able and talented guy. And what they’ve done here, produced, I think, is a devastating report on where we’re headed with respect to the military and Defense if we don’t reverse course immediately. So it’s a professionally done job. I don’t know that anybody would call it political, but it certainly points the finger at the President, and to some extent, to the Congress with respect to what’s happening to the U.S. military. So it depends on the setting, I guess, and on the individual. Some of them may like to get involved in the political arena. A lot of them don’t. A lot of them basically have always operated as professionals, career professionals. And the notion that they answer to the president of the United States when they are in uniform is deeply-ingrained, and it doesn’t mean they agree with him, or any one particular president. But I think that’s so much part of their culture that a lot of them are reluctant to jump in. Jack Keane, for example, Jack’s been very, very good and a great source in terms of what’s happening in that part of the world. He doesn’t speak negatively about the President, but he’s very forthright on what needs to be done.
HH: Are you satisfied with the Republican response here as a national party to both the collapse in Iraq and the rising threat from Russia, and PRC’s aggressiveness? Is the Republican Party acting with enough vigor to reestablish itself as the party of Reagan and of Bush/Cheney?
DC: Well, I think more needs to be done, if I can put it in those terms. It’s one of the reasons Liz and I got involved in the venture we’ve got going now, Alliance For Strong America, to make sure that in the coming months and years, the whole issue of national security and Defense is front and center in our political debate and dialogue. And so we’ve started up that organization, and are in the midst now of trying to get visibility and credibility. And we think it’s important for the Republican Party to reassert and recommit to those basic principles of Ronald Reagan and so many other of our Republicans leaders in the national security area.
HH: Mr. Vice President, you’re 73 and you’ve got a new ticker. You look great. When you were out in California, I saw you. Any chance that you would consider running for the nomination in 2016 to put yourself in the debates that will held on these…
DC: Well, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it, Hugh? But I’ll be 75 years old, and that would be some kind of a record. I’ve had a great life and a great career, and I want to continue to be very active, but I’m not your candidate. I think it’s time for the younger generation to step forward, and I’m sure we can find somebody out there without turning to yours truly.
HH: Any thoughts on a Romney rerun, about which there is some speculation in the media?
DC: Yeah, I’ve heard some speculation, too. I haven’t committed to anybody, and won’t, obviously, for a while until I see somebody. The main test for me is going to be these issues that we’ve been talking about, Hugh. That’s what, in my mind, the presidency has to deal with and cope with, and that’s the number one criteria for me on picking a president the next time around.
HH: Now Israel has just concluded, or at least they’re in the middle of a longer ceasefire than we’ve seen in a month with Hamas over Gaza. Did the United States stand as closely as they ought to have stood with Israel during the course of that conflict?
DC: I think, I don’t think we’ve been as supportive as we should have been. My own personal view is the relationship between Israel and this administration is probably as bad as it’s ever been. I find that there’s a sense that what they fail to understand is that we have in fact a common enemy here, and that there is a unique set of circumstances developing where even for example, our Arab friends, you haven’t heard them speak out against Israel defending herself. There, when I traveled to the Middle East this spring, I found that the Arabs and Israelis were closer to one another on a lot of these issues than either one of them was to the Obama administration. That’s how far things have changed out there. And I think the Israeli situation has, they’re doing what they have to do to defend themselves, they’re certainly entitled to do that. Traditionally and historically, we’ve been strong supporters, and I certainly am of that relationship. I think it’s crucial.
HH: All right, two last questions. You said you wouldn’t run to put these issues front and center. Liz started to run for the Wyoming Senate seat, then decided for a variety of reasons not to do so. And obviously, she’s better qualified than people like Herman Cain and others who ran. Do you think she might consider doing this?
DC: You’d have to talk to her about it, Hugh. We’re not announcing any campaigns today in the Cheney family.
HH: The reason I’m asking is just no one’s talking about…well, Marco Rubio talks about this a little bit, but it seems to me that the Republican Party has an obligation here that they’re not discharging.
DC: Well, Hugh, we believe very deeply, Liz and I do, that those issues need to be front and center in a campaign. We are concerned that sometimes you’ll sense a strain of isolationism out there in our own party. I think that would be terrible if that’s what we became known for. I think the world is a far more dangerous place than it was in the recent past. I think our policies are atrocious at this point because of this administration. But I want to see my party, and whoever our candidate is, be a staunch advocate and a strong, strong leader in the making certain that we have a military second to none, and that we have the capacity and the understanding of the problem. Obama doesn’t even understand what the problem is out there. And this growth of fundamentalist Islam is a major, major threat to the United States and our friends around the world. And it’s growing day by day, and we absolutely have to be equipped to deal with it. And sometimes, that will mean military action, and we’ve got to have a president who believes in that, and is willing to provide the leadership to make it happen.
HH: And a last question, it’s political. You’ve run a number of campaigns – statewide, national. People remember you took apart Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. You know your way around a campaign. Can Hillary Clinton be beaten? And if so, how?
DC: Well, I think she can. I’m not at all pessimistic about our prospects there. I think she’s got a lot of things she’ll have to answer for, a lot of baggage. She’s got to explain why serving as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, she shouldn’t be held accountable for being the one who implemented those policies such as they are. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk for her by any means. I’m not even sure that it’s guaranteed she’ll get the Democratic nomination. I think there’s a lot to answer for – Benghazi and many other points that I think will be arguments against her.
HH: But she has always eluded tough questions. Will the D.C.-Beltway-Manhattan elite ever ask her the tough questions?
DC: I don’t, boy, I wouldn’t want to make a wild guess there. Obviously, she’s been very successful politically, as has her husband, but I think her performance in the last few months hasn’t been all that sterling. You know, the book tour got her in a fair amount of trouble. She hasn’t been as smooth an item as one might expect. And you know, she’s, I think there are a lot of wannabes over on the Democratic side who are holding back, because she’s still sort of occupying the space as the expected preferred option, but I’m not at all sure that’ll be sure two years from now.
HH: Mr. Vice President, as always, bracing. Thank you for spending time with us, and the website for the new organization is www.strongeramerica.com.
DC: Yes, Alliance for a Strong America.
HH: www.strongeramerica.com. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, talk to you again soon.
DC: Okay, thanks, Hugh.
End of interview.