The “Old” Dick Cheney is getting some new attention, thanks in large measure to the web-based circulation of the so-called C-SPAN “quagmire” video.
Mary Ann Akers–aka “The Sleuth”, at washingtonpost.com–provides an excellent report on the origins of this great “YouTube” brushfire.
Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times blog “Screen” is surely correct that this is a tele-technological moment: the video circulates with far greater fanfare than a text-only transcript would have.
Indeed, there is no real news in the fact that Cheney was very critical of the idea of occupying Baghdad. One can find an on-line, full-text transcript with a very similar Cheney quote from a PBS Frontline series “The Gulf War,” featuring excellent oral history interviews with many key players.
Here is an excerpt from Cheney’s Frontline interview: (you are welcome to circulate the text, but I wouldn’t expect a brushfire…)
There was a feeling too, there was an important consideration, call it political if you want, but there’s only so much you can ask young Americans to do…
I was not an enthusiast about getting US 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…
Now you can say well you should have gone to Baghdad and gotten Saddam, I don’t think so 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…
I think if Saddam wasn’t there that 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.
We are always going to have to be involved there and Saddam is just one more irritant but there’s a long list of irritants in that part of the world and for us to have done what would have been necessary to get rid of him–certainly a very large force for a long time into Iraq to run him to ground and then you’ve got to worry about what comes after. And you then have to accept the responsibility for what happens in Iraq, accept more responsibility for what happens in the region. It would have been an all US operation, I don’t think any of our allies would have been with us, maybe Britain, but nobody else. And you’re going to take a lot more American casualties if you’re gonna go muck around in Iraq for weeks on end trying to run Saddam Hussein to ground and capture Baghdad and so forth and I don’t think it would have been worth it.
Of course, the pleasure that motivates all the excitement over this kind of material derives from the game of Gotcha!
And, insofar as I have argued against over reliance on the charge of “incompetence” as the explanation for US policy in Iraq, it is satisfying to have evidence that, at some level, Cheney knew what he was getting into when the US decided to topple Saddam.
Indeed, the Frontline transcript makes him sound just like his old Right Arabist friends George Bush Sr., Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Colin Powell. There is the concern for the supply of oil, but also confidence in and deference to our (Saudi) “friends in the region.” There is Powell’s “pottery barn” rule–“you then have to accept responsibility for what happens in Iraq.” And there is even the concern about unilateralism (“maybe Britain, but nobody else”).
As I noted in a previous post, however, there seems to be far more concern with exposing Cheney’s hypocrisy than with explaining the shift in his position.
Juan Cole took a shot at a quick and dirty explanation when he posted the “quagmire video”:
Cheney’s years in Dallas hanging around with Big Oil CEO’s appear to have made him question his earlier conviction that it was best to leave Saddam Hussein in power.
This explanation is probably intended as a cheap shot, but it begs a few questions. Did Scowcroft, Baker, and Powell spend insufficient time “in Dallas hanging around with Big Oil CEO’s”? Is that why the retained their earlier conviction that it was best to leave Saddam in power?
I have speculated on the possible role that oil politics played in Cheney’s change of “heart,” but I think it is a bit misleading to assume that Cheney’s time in the oil industry made him hawkish on Iraq.
Cheney’s McGovern moment–the C-SPAN “quagmire video”–was shot during his tenure as a fellow at the “Neocon” American Enterprise Institute. So, if one were to follow the logic of Cole’s point, it appear that Big Oil favored the invasion of Iraq over the objections of the anti-war Neocons.
Indeed, during his time in Texas, Cheney was not above taking pot shots at the “Israel Lobby” for being hawkish on Iraq and Iran.
Isn’t that what he was doing in an 1996 interview with Petroleum Finance Week when he criticized “sanctions sought by domestic politicians to please local constituencies [that] will hurt U.S. business growth overseas….
That was Cheney as Big Oil attacking the Israel Lobby hawks.
One could even argue that it was only after Cheney the oil executive became vice president and was handed an enormous defeat at the hands of the Israel Lobby in Congress (pre-9/11) that he aligned himself with Right Zionists.
Although I have offered what are essentially pre-9/11 and post-9/11 explanations for the timing of Cheney’s shift, I think the entire question–urgent as it is for understanding where US policy has been and where it is going–remains murky.
And, I fear, it will remain so until critics move beyond the impoverished politics of Gotcha!