Dick Cheney, Dove
More on why Bush père's defense secretary didn't want to go to Baghdad.
Violating a core precept of journalism, Chatterbox put the most interesting part of yesterday's item at the bottom. It was a Dick Cheney quote that Patrick Tyler included in a New York Times story published April 13, 1991, a little more than a month after the shooting stopped in the Gulf war. The quote was interesting because it examined hard questions about overthrowing Saddam Hussein that James Fallows addresses in the November Atlantic Monthly—questions that Cheney (then defense secretary, now vice president) no longer shows the slightest interest in as the nation prepares to go to war with Iraq once again. Violating another core precept of journalism, Chatterbox will repeat the Cheney quote in full:
If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?
Now, you might argue that Cheney was just being a loyal Cabinet member, advancing arguments of his commander in chief that he didn't particularly agree with. The trouble with this interpretation is that Cheney expressed similar sentiments five years later in a Gulf War documentary produced for PBS's Frontline. Describing the decision to end the war on Feb. 27, 1991—a cease-fire took effect the next day, and for the most part the United States stuck with it—Cheney said:
A: [T]here was no sense, I don't believe on the part of any of us who were there that day that there was any disagreement with this approach. There might have been some different views down further in the ranks—General McCaffrey and the guys in the 24th fought a major engagement the day after the cease-fire obviously against a brigade of Iraqi Republican Guard. But there was no sense at that time that there was any different point of view that we ought to keep the conflict going much longer. …
Q: You were comfortable personally with this?
A: I was.
[A few weeks later, when the uprisings occurred among the Shi'a in the South and the Kurds in the North,]I was not an enthusiast about getting U.S. forces and going into Iraq. We were there in the southern part of Iraq to the extent we needed to be there to defeat his forces and to get him out of Kuwait, but the idea of going into Baghdad, for example, or trying to topple the regime wasn't anything I was enthusiastic about. I felt there was a real danger here that you would get bogged down in a long drawn-out conflict, that this was a dangerous, difficult part of the world; if you recall we were all worried about the possibility of Iraq coming apart, the Iranians restarting the conflict that they'd had in the eight-year bloody war with the Iranians and the Iraqis over eastern Iraq. We had concerns about the Kurds in the north, the Turks get very nervous every time we start to talk about an independent Kurdistan.
Plus there was the notion that you were going to set yourself a new war aim that we hadn't talked to anybody about. That you hadn't gotten Congress to approve, hadn't talked to the American people about. You're going to find yourself in a situation where you've redefined your war aims and now set up a new war aim that in effect would detract from the enormous success you just had. What we set out to do was to liberate Kuwait and to destroy his offensive capability, that's what I said repeatedly in my public statements. That was the mission I was given by the President. That's what we did. Now you can say, well, you should have gone to Baghdad and gotten Saddam. I don't think so.[Italics Chatterbox's.] I think if we had done that we would have been bogged down there for a very long period of time with the real possibility we might not have succeeded.
In the 1996 interview, Cheney actually managed to out-dove today's liberals who oppose going to war (by now, you should remember, Cheney was chairman of Halliburton, an oil-drilling company that did extensive business in the Islamic world) by suggesting that Saddam's ouster would have little beneficial effect:
[I]f Saddam wasn't there, his successor probably wouldn't be notably friendlier to the United States than he is. I also look at that part of the world as of vital interest to the United States; for the next hundred years it's going to be the world's supply of oil. We've got a lot of friends in the region. We're always going to have to be involved there. Maybe it's part of our national character, you know, we like to have these problems nice and neatly wrapped up, put a ribbon around it. You deploy a force, you win the war, and the problem goes away, and it doesn't work that way in the Middle East; it never has and isn't likely to in my lifetime[italics Chatterbox's].
Now, Chatterbox won't dispute that life has changed in many ways since 1991. Back then, it seemed reasonable to assume that Saddam had no future in Iraq. By 1996, though, it was clear that Saddam had consolidated his power. He hadn't yet expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors—that occurred two years later—but he wasn't being especially cooperative, either. Why was invading Iraq at the bottom of Cheney's agenda back then, but at the top of it now?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.