Let’s revisit the old question of Cheney–his influence and his agenda.
There has been speculation, most recently in early March, that Cheney might be losing his influence in the White House.
At least some folks in Washington think that may be so much wishful thinking.
Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks report in the Washington Post that someone in the White House is looking to find a powerful successor to Meghan O’Sullivan, the Richard Haass protégé who has been the lead White House staffer responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marine Gen. John J. “Jack” Sheehan was one of those invited to consider the White House “war czar” position and his public response to that invitation speaks directly to the question of Cheney’s influence. The Post quotes Sheehan:
“The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,” said retired Marine Gen. John J. “Jack” Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. “So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks,’ ” he said….
In the course of the discussions, Sheehan said, he called around to get a better feel for the administration landscape.
“There’s the residue of the Cheney view — ‘We’re going to win, al-Qaeda’s there’ — that justifies anything we did,” he said. “And then there’s the pragmatist view — how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence.” Sheehan said he wrote a note March 27 declining interest.
And then there is Cheney and US relations with Iran.
On the one hand, Iran hawks like John Bolton have criticized the UK–and the US–for handing Iranian hardliners a victory in the recent “hostage” affair. Writing in the Financial Times, Bolton declares:
Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, an improbable Easter bunny, scored a political victory, both in Iran and internationally, by his “gift” of the return of Britain’s 15 hostages. Against all odds, Iran emerged with a win-win from the crisis: winning by its provocation in seizing the hostages in the first place and winning again by its unilateral decision to release them….
Tony Blair, the prime minister, said he was “not negotiating but not confronting either”… [W]hat does “not negotiating but not confronting” actually mean? Unnamed British diplomats briefed the press that they had engaged in “discussions” but not negotiations. One can only await with interest to learn what that distinction without a difference implies…. the US was silent, at Britain’s behest.
The Captain Ahabs of British and US diplomacy, obsessed by their search for Iranian “moderates”, those great white whales, are proclaiming yet another “moderate” victory in this outcome…
Indisputably the winners in Iran were the hardliners.
When Bolton proposes that there might, as yet, be more “to learn” about the nature of the discussions between the British and Iran he is referring to the widely circulating rumor that there was a quid pro quo involved in the hostage release.
Specifically, there has been speculation linking the capture and release of the British “hostages” to the capture of several Iranian “hostages”–the so-called Irbil Five–in Iraq.
On the Left, Patrick Cockburn suggested that the Iranians seized the British in retaliation for the American capture of the Iranians.
During the “negotiations,” an Iranian diplomat held in Iraq was released, feeding speculation of dealmaking.
The Iranians hinted at a deal after the British were released:
Tehran has called on London to respond to its release of 15 UK naval personnel with a gesture of good will, indicating it wants Britain’s help to free five Iranians held in Iraq and ease concerns about its nuclear programme.
“We played our part and we showed our good will,” Rasoul Movahedian, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, told the Financial Times, in his first interview since the crisis began. “Now it is up to the British government to proceed in a positive way.”
There has been speculation that Tehran’s decision to free the 15 was linked to the fate of the Iranians held by the US since January.
This sparked fear among Iran hawks on the Right that the Bush administration had agreed to the link in a scandalous quid pro quo.
Where is Cheney?
In an interview with ABC News Radio, Cheney was asked about a quid pro quo:
Q Do you think there was any quid pro quo for their release?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t know.
Q Do you think there should have been?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t think there should have been…
At first glance, the whole hostage affair seems to represent a loss for Cheney.
And he may, indeed, agree with Bolton that the whole deal was a victory for Iranian hardliners.
It is also possible, however, that Cheney is not quite finished.
The British have been release. But the Iranian “Irbil Five”?
No sign of them. At least not yet. And, according to the Financial Times the Iranians are pissed.
Iran’s frustration has been gradually building over the lack of progress in releasing five Iranians seized by US forces from Tehran’s consular building in Arbil, northern Iraq, on January 11. The case has become for Iran a disturbing sign of hostile US intentions, both over Tehran’s role in Iraq and its nuclear programme…
“We are not responsible for [the detained Iranians],” one Iraqi source said. “The realpolitik of today’s Iraq is different and [the Iranians] know it for sure.”…
Iran’s hopes for the release of the “Arbil Five” blossomed last week both with the freeing of Jalal Sharafi, a senior Iranian diplomat, two months after he was kidnapped in Baghdad apparently by Iraqi special forces, and with Iran’s release of 15 British sailors and marines detained since March 23.
Is it possible that those are Cheney fingerprints on “the realpolitik of today’s Iraq”?
In addition to questions of influence, there remains the issue of Cheney’s goals regarding Iran.
I note with interest that some of Cheney’s Right Zionist allies continue to be very frustrated by US policy toward Iran. Right Zionists have always thought of populist regime change as the top priority in Iran. But Cheney’s potential influence appears to offer little hope to Right Zionists that US policy is moving decisively in this direction.
In a recent interview, Richard Perle seems nearly inconsolable:
It astonishes me that we have no political strategy that entails working with the opposition and that reflects how unpopular the theocracy is. It’s a complete failure of imagination. We had such a strategy with Franco’s Spain, with Salazar’s Portugal, with Marcos’s Philippines, with Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and with Poland during Solidarity. In Iran you have mullahs who are acting in a political capacity—who basically rule by force, with the backing of the Basij—and they ought to receive a political challenge. There are clerics in Iran, such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who don’t like the theocracy. And there are lots of indications that a majority of the Iranian people, and certainly the overwhelming majority of young Iranians, identify with Western concepts of government… There is plenty of scope for a political strategy in Iran, and I think the Iranian mullahs fear it. They must wake up everyday saying to themselves, “I can’t understand why these Americans haven’t done anything to use our unpopularity against us.” They must be as puzzled as I am.
If Cheney is preparing the way for a “political strategy” of populist regime change in Iran, he appears to be keeping it from some of his best friends.