by Jim Lobe
While Democratic rivals battle for the presidential nomination in a succession of grueling primary elections, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be fighting to secure his spot on the Republican ticket behind President George W. Bush.
The vice president, whose moderation and 35-year Washington experience reassured voters worried about the callowness and inexperience of Bush during the 2000 campaign, is seen more and more by Republican Party politicos as a drag on the president’s reelection chances in what is universally expected to be an extremely close race.
The reasons are simple: instead of the moderate voice of wisdom and caution that voters thought they were getting in the vice president, ongoing disclosures about his role in the drive to war in Iraq and other controversial administration plans depict him as an extremist who constantly pushed for the most radical measures.
He is seen as not just an extremist, but also a kind of "eminence grise" who exercises undue influence over Bush to further a radical agenda, a notion that was furthered by the publication of a recent book about former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, who described Cheney as creating a "kind of praetorian guard around the president" that blocked out contrary views.
In addition, Cheney’s association with Halliburton, the giant construction and oil company he headed for much of the 1990s and that gobbled up billions of dollars in contracts for Iraq’s postwar reconstruction, is growing steadily as a major political liability.
Indeed, Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trial are already using Halliburton’s rhythmic, four-syllable name (Hal’-li-bur-ton, Hal’-li-bur-ton) as a mantra that neatly taps into the public’s growing concerns on Iraq and disgust with crony capitalism and corporate greed all at the same time.
Reports were already surfacing two months ago that a discreet "dump-Cheney" movement had been launched by intimate associates of Bush’s father (former president George H.W. Bush) – his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former secretary of state James Baker, who now has a White House appointment as Bush Jr.’s personal envoy to persuade official creditors to substantially reduce Iraq’s 110-billion-dollar foreign debt.
In addition to their perception that Cheney’s presence would harm Bush’s reelection chances, the two men, who battled frequently with the vice president when he was defense secretary in the first Bush administration, have privately expressed great concern over Cheney’s unparalleled influence over the younger Bush and the damage that has done to U.S. relations with longtime allies, particularly in Europe and the Arab world.
Cheney’s unprecedented rounds of press interviews earlier this month, as well as his trip this week to Switzerland and Italy – only the second time the vice president has traveled abroad in three years – should be seen in this context.
"I think he knows that he’s in trouble," one prominent Republican activist, who thinks Cheney should be dropped, told IPS this week.
"I don’t think there’s any other way to explain why he would sit for a puerile interview for the (Washington Post’s) ‘Style’ section. You know he despises that sort of thing."
Cheney’s travel and sudden and abundant press availability was noted in Tuesday’s New York Times, which described his behavior as "a calculated election-year makeover to temper his hard-line image at home and abroad."
But what was remarkable is that he might only have confirmed the growing impression that he remains a zealot, a notion that was especially pronounced in an interview he gave National Public Radio (NPR) last week.
Cheney not only insisted that major stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might still be found in Iraq, he also asserted that two semitrailer trucks found in that country during last year’s U.S.-led war constituted "conclusive evidence" of WMD programs.
Both assertions were almost instantly refuted by none other than the administration’s outgoing chief weapons inspector, David Kay.
In a series of statements published after Cheney’s NPR broadcast, Kay said he had concluded the WMD stockpiles were destroyed in the early 1990s, and that the two trailers were intended to produce hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly rocket fuel, but had nothing to do with WMD.
In the same NPR interview Cheney also insisted there was "overwhelming evidence" of an "established relationship" between former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group, citing as one clue Hussein’s alleged harboring of a suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.
But the notion of such an "established relationship" in any operational sense has now been virtually totally discarded by the intelligence community, and Bush and other senior officials have largely dropped the issue.
Moreover, the FBI and other intelligence agencies that investigated the 1993 bombing and the subsequent residence in Iraq of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a low-level suspect, found no evidence that Baghdad was actively protecting him or that he was linked to Iraqi intelligence in any way.
In a second interview, Cheney told USA Today he was not worried about his image as the administration’s Machiavelli, skilled in the quiet arts of persuading his "Prince" to pursue questionable policies, adding, surprisingly unselfconsciously, "Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It’s a nice way to operate, actually."
But whether Cheney likes it or not, he is increasingly seen that way, by Democrats, by Republican internationalists like Baker and Scowcroft, and, perhaps most significantly for purposes of Bush’s reelection prospects, by a growing number of traditionally Republican right-wingers and libertarians worried about the impact of the exploding costs of the "war on terror" on the country’s fiscal health, individual liberties and armed forces.
They also blame Cheney for being the administration’s key backer and enabler of the neo-conservative vision of a never-ending war against radical Islam, which they believe will only accelerate current trends.
"So Dick Cheney turns out to be a true radical – not a moderate Republican," noted Georgie Anne Geyer, a nationally syndicated columnist, who compared the vice president to Cardinal Richelieu of 17th-century France in a cover article for this week’s edition of American Conservative magazine.
"While there is little mystery about what he has actually done, there remains the mystery of how a man from Wyoming should be the epicenter of a scheme so strange, so Machiavellian, so profoundly disaggregated from the American context," she wrote.
"But no one should expect Dick Cheney and his group (of neo-conservatives) to change. They will not."
In a case of particularly bad timing, Cheney’s image as a manipulative schemer was furthered again this week, just as he was trying to reassure Europeans about his moderation and commitment to multilateralism.
In a new book on Tony Blair, author and Financial Times correspondent Philip Stephens depicts Cheney as the surprise guest at key meetings between Bush and the British prime minister. He quotes one Blair aide complaining that Cheney "waged a guerrilla war" against London’s efforts to seek United Nations approval before the war.
The book concludes that Cheney constantly "sought to undermine the prime minister privately," and quotes him telling another senior official more than six months before the war, "once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools."
But despite Hussein’s capture, that "victory" still looks rather tenuous, and with recent polls showing Cheney’s favorability rating at less than one-half of Bush’s – a mere 20 percent and falling – so might the vice-president’s claim to the number two spot on the Republican ticket.
Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.