Vice President Dick Cheney on the war, Iran, the state of our intelligence, and who’s best to be the next president
HH: Mr. Vice President, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, good to have you.
DC: Well, it’s good to be back.
HH: This week, there’s been a lot of talk on the Hill about Iraq with the Petraeus and Crocker testimony. And often, the Democrats refer to two wars, Mr. Vice President. Is it one war and two battles, or is it two different wars?
DC: Well, I think it’s one war. And I think if you look at…there are a lot of different ways to try to verify that, but remember Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was a guy who was a Palestinian, born in Jordan, imprisoned in Jordan for terrorist activities, released in an amnesty, found his way to Afghanistan where he sat up and ran a terrorist training camp, with a quasi-affiliation with al Qaeda. And when we went into Afghanistan, he fled to Iraq, set up shop in Iraq, the Khurmal facility, where they were trying to produce poisons up in Northern Iraq, and worked out of Baghdad, and of course then became the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, ultimately bombing the Golden Mosque at Samarra, and precipitating the Shia on Sunni violence that was so difficult to deal with over there. And then finally, we killed him in ’06. But a guy like that, national boundaries don’t mean anything. I mean, this is a guy who’s motivated by al Qaeda-type philosophy, and who’s determined to do everything he can to kill Americans, and to bring down those governments that don’t see eye to eye with the al Qaeda types. And that part of the world is full of them, and you’ve got all of those different regions out there are potential trouble spots.
HH: Well, when you hear some of the critics of the administration’s Iraq policy say that we are diverted from the mission in Afghanistan by virtue of the number of troops in the effort made in Iraq, what’s the response to that, Mr. Vice President?
DC: Well, I don’t think that’s the case, Hugh. I think if you look at what we’ve done in Afghanistan, these are situations, obviously, where you’ve got to make adjustments for local considerations. But when we went into Afghanistan, I think everybody understood the importance of that. It was the training area for al Qaeda. They’d set up a lot of training camps, and trained 20,000 terrorists there in the late 90’s, some of whom came here and killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. But you’ve also got a situation there where we’ve got good local support. We’ve got a government established under President Karzai. They’ve gone about that process in accordance with their own culture and their own history. But ultimately, they’ve got to be responsible for their own sovereign territory. The same thing has to happen in Iraq. And there is a lot of concerns in that part of the world, that you’ve got to remember hundreds of thousands, literally millions of people have stood up and been counted because of the United States, because we’re in the fight. You’ve got literally hundreds of thousands in Iraq, for example, who’ve signed up to be part of the security services. You’ve got the millions of people who voted. You’ve got those who are serving in public office, who run risk every day of possible assassination. If we were to bail out on one of those countries out there, whatever it was, and not complete the mission, and make it possible for al Qaeda to reassert themselves, you can imagine what that would do to the confidence of all those other people who’ve stuck their necks out because the United States is leading the fight. That would have an impact not just in Iraq, which would be severe, but it would have an impact in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and a lot of those other places out there where they’ve got people in governments who are actively engaged in the war on terror. So what happens in Iraq has a direct bearing on all of those other locales.
HH: General Petraeus testified a number of times in the last two days that Iran is actively engaged in killing Americans in Iraq. Do you see their tempo and their operations against the United States increasing, Mr. Vice President? Or is it fairly stable?
DC: Well, it’s hard to predict, you know, what direction that’s going to move in. I obviously listened to General Petraeus. And in terms of his views, he’s the guy on the scene, and probably has the best fix on it. But Iran has been a bad actor in many respects. The President talked about it today in his remarks at the White House. They…the way he couched it was the Iranians have got a choice between whether or not they want to see a successful, stable Iraq, democratically governed next door to them, or whether they want to continue to try to promote strife and instability, and support acts of terror, and in the process of doing that, permanently damage their relationship with Iraq, their next door neighbor. The Iraqis, I think, are getting a belly full of the kind of activities the Iranians have been engaged in, and frankly, I think the Iranians, as the President said, have got to make a choice of how they want that part of the world to work.
HH: 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?
DC: 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 there was a report even at one point that when he went to Iraq on a visit, that on at least 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 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 has 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.
HH: If Iran actually possessed nuclear weapons, do you think they’re deterrable in the way that the Soviet were? Or is that what you were getting at, that they might actually use them because it’s part of the theological justification for they’re having power?
DC: Well, I think we have to be careful, obviously, to…it’s a difficult kind of a judgment to make. I think we do have an obligation to listen to what they’re saying. Now 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 oh, he doesn’t mean it, it’s just rhetoric. But you can’t do that. And I certainly, 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 him 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.
HH: Did you talk with the Israelis in any way you can discuss about action against Iran’s nuclear capability?
DC: No, I couldn’t talk about those, Hugh.
HH: I understand that. I have plunged into Doug Feith’s new book. Have you had a chance to read it yet, Mr. Vice President?
DC: I don’t. I have a copy, Doug brought me a copy, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
HH: It’s fascinating, but it does describe a fairly dysfunctional United States intelligence capability, and one that endured, I don’t…fairly up to the time he’s writing the book and left the government. Do you think the administration has fixed, or fundamentally addressed the incapacities of our intelligence community to one, get it right, and two, not be political, but be a fair assessor of what’s going on in the world?
DC: Well, I think there’s several ways to look at it. Obviously, it’s an enormously important question, and we have had problems there in the past. All you have to do is look at the Iraq WMD National Intelligence Estimate, and there have been other problems over the years. What I am impressed by at present, I can’t say that you know, we’ve got it absolutely right at this point, or that the organization is perfected, or there can’t be other changes or modifications made. That’s entirely possible. What I look to are the people. And right now, in the team we’ve got at the top, in terms of leading the intelligence community, with Mike McConnell as DNI, Steve Kappes and Mike Hayden out at the Central Intelligence Agency, that is as good a team as I’ve ever worked with, and I worked with a bunch of them over the last forty years. Mike McConnell worked for me when I was Secretary of Defense. He was a J-2 on the Joint Staff, and then later on, we made him head of the National Security Agency. Mike Hayden, of course, had a wealth of experience, and Steve Kappes is one of the best in the business. These are superb professionals, and I’ve got great confidence in them. They’ve got a very, very difficult job and assignment, and in the intelligence business, we can’t guarantee that we’ll always get it right. Sometimes we blow it, sometimes I think a missed call. But I do feel very good about the quality of the people we’ve got at the top these days. Keith Alexander out at NSA is another superb officer. So I think from that perspective, I’m as comfortable as it’s humanly possible to be in terms of the leadership that we’ve got there. And the long terms prospects in terms of how successful we’ll have been, obviously, the historians will have to determine.
HH: Last question, Mr. Vice President. The presidential campaign, of course, absorbing everything, and Senator Obama is talking a lot about foreign policy. Does he strike you as someone who has a good grasp of the intricacies of this war with the jihadists that we’re in, and a full understanding of the threats facing the United States?
DC: Well, in my view, Hugh, I don’t think there’s any question but what…I don’t think there’s much of a choice in the sense that I think John McCain’s head and shoulders above his Democratic opponents, whoever it is, whether its Obama or Clinton. I just think the single most important issue we’re faced with in this election is the future of the Republic, national security, global war on terror, et cetera. And I’ve had my differences with John over the years, but I think he’s the right man for the job at this time, and I think he’s head and shoulders above a man like Senator Obama in terms of his experience and his ability to make these decisions.
HH: Vice President Dick Cheney, thanks for joining us, always a pleasure.
DC: Hugh, good to talk to you.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview