Dick Cheney has forged a reputation as the most powerful but also least visible vice-president in recent history. In the next few weeks, however, he will be forced to fight some of his battles in the open – in the courtroom and on Capitol Hill.
The first test will come in the criminal trial of his former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, charged with lying to a grand jury during an investigation into how a CIA agent’s name was leaked. The trial, due to begin in two weeks, is likely to set an ignominious precedent when Mr Cheney becomes the first vice-president to testify in a trial.
Mr Cheney’s legal team are also steeling themselves for the launch of legislative investigations by the new Democrat-controlled Congress.
Neither of these external threats will likely do much damage. The real question is Cheney’s role inside the White House.
His influence has never come from his popularity outside the White House, but from his access within it. That has not changed. Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, told the FT: “He is a welcome participant in every meeting the president is in, he sits in on almost all the policy meetings…
Even so, there are signs that the president’s confidence in his judgment has waned. He was cut out of the decision to oust his ally Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence, a move he vigorously opposed. “They really are genuinely close friends but the president doesn’t always take his advice,” said Mr Bolten.
The FT mentions that Cheney may lose some influence to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on question of economic policy, including Social Security reform. One might add China policy to that list.
But the FT ultimately dodges the crucial question: does Cheney call the shots on US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Iran?
If Bush “doesn’t always take [Cheney’s] advice,” as Bolten says, neither does he always take the advice of Right Arabists like James Baker.
The big post-mid-term election story of 2006 was the unexpectedly cold White House reception given to Baker’s Iraq Study Group Report (for some background on the “push back” against Baker, see previous posts here, here, here, and here).
Cheney Drives the Bus
Until Bush formally announces the results of his Iraq Policy Review, it will remain difficult to discern the course of US policy ahead. Nevertheless, there may be some hints in the news, all of which point to Cheney at the wheel.
The strongest signals of late seem to indicate that the “Shiite Option” in Iraq may still have some legs, even as this is linked to an aggressive policy toward Syria and Iran.
If so, an early casualty will be US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Much of Khalilzad’s “timetable” for Iraq was written into the Iraq Study Group Report and his tenure as Ambassador has corresponded with US efforts to court Sunni political support and move against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army.
Sistani: Foil to US Occupiers?
It was Khalilzad who was most closely associated with plans for the formation of a new “moderate” Iraqi government that would see Prime Minister Maliki dump Sadr and align himself more closely with Sunni forces.
This idea hit a major hurdle when Grand Ayatollah Sistani allegedly rejected the plan in late December.
Helena Cobban at “Just World News” has interpreted this move by Sistani as one more instance in which the Grand Ayatollah has again “foiled” the US occupiers. A similar analysis accompanied the Iraqi elections of 2005 when Swopa claimed that Sistani had forced the to hold elections that Bush never wanted.
There is more than a bit of truth to these claims. But it is also worth noting that in both instances Sistani’s actions represented a defeat for Right Arabists in the Bush administration but were quite compatible with the path promoted by Right Zionists like AEI’s Reuel Marc Gerecht.
Gerecht celebrated the 2005 Iraqi elections for all the same reasons Right Arabists opposed them and more recently he warned against Khalilzad’s effort to split the Shia. In an essay entitled, “In Iraq, Let’s Fight One War at a Time,” Gerecht argued:
In Baghdad and in Washington, officials privately and the press publicly suggest that the Bush administration would prefer that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki fell… Mr. Maliki is politically too dependent, the reasoning goes, on the young Shiite militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, a scion of a prestigious clerical family and the boss of a pivotal bloc of votes in Iraq’s Parliament…
Since President Bush is now immersed in a top-to-bottom Iraq review, in which a substantial surge of American soldiers into Baghdad seems ever more likely and the Army is again seriously considering directly confronting Mr. Sadr, the appeal of Mr. Mahdi and the Supreme Council may grow in Washington and Baghdad.
If so, the administration should nip in the bud such inclinations. Changing the Shiite parts of the Iraqi government and quickly taking on Mr. Sadr would do nothing to end the Sunni insurgency and the holy war of foreign jihadists against the new Iraq…
[S]ome Shiites, and perhaps most Sunnis, may threaten to walk out of Iraq’s government and forsake reconciliation talks if the Americans get serious about pacifying Baghdad and the insurgency elsewhere. Let them. If the city’s and country’s Shiites, who represent about 65 percent of Iraq’s population, see that the Americans are committed to countering the insurgency, any protest from Mr. Maliki or call to arms by Mr. Sadr will have increasingly less power.
No, it won’t be easy–but with American and Iraqi troops all over Baghdad and daily life returning to some normality, the situation will certainly be more manageable than what we confront now. The politics of peaceful Shiite consensus, which is what Grand Ayatollah Sistani has tried to advance since 2003, could again rapidly gain ground…
The key for America is the same as it has been for years: to clear and hold the Sunni areas of Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle to the north. There will probably be no political solution among the Iraqi factions to save American troops from the bulk of this task. The sooner we start in Baghdad, the better the odds are that the radicalization of the Iraqi Shiites can be halted.
The Shiite Option in 2007
There may already be signs that the Bush administration is preparing to pursue this course.
The execution of Saddam Hussein might be one place to begin looking, despite some protestations from Khalilzad.
Then there is the news of a US military raid on the offices of Saleh al-Mutlak, an ex-Baathist Sunni politician once actively courted by Condoleezza Rice.
And National Security Council Adviser Stephen Hadley floated a pro-Shia trial balloon. The New York Times welcomes the new year with a story that features Hadley reflecting on the failures of recent US policy and preparing the way for an anti-Sunni military “surge” in Iraq:
“We could not clear and hold,” Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, acknowledged in a recent interview, in a frank admission of how American strategy had crumbled. “Iraqi forces were not able to hold neighborhoods, and the effort to build did not show up. The sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors.”…
In early August, the United States was forced to reverse course and add troops in Baghdad. On reflection, Mr. Hadley said, “Finally the patience of the Shia had worn thin,” and, “By the time the unity government took over the cycle of sectarian violence had begun. And they and we have not been able to get ahead of it .”
The Washington Post offers a similar profile of Khalilzad’s failure to gauge Shia impatience:
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared the Shiite militias the most significant threat to Iraq’s stability, replacing the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda. Frustrated by the Shiite government’s inability to govern and bring security, U.S. officials began pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to dismantle the militias. They zeroed in on the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, upon whom Maliki depends for power…
Shiite politicians and analysts say Khalilzad is backing the Sunnis to limit the power of Shiites in the government…
“We know the U.S. is under great pressure from Arabic and Islamic countries, who are Sunni,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a member of parliament with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party with strong ties to Tehran. “They fear the growing power of the Shia inside Iraq.”
“The Americans have a wrong reading of Iraq,” said Hasan Suneid, a member of the Shiite Dawa party and a close aide to Maliki. “And who is responsible for this reading? It is the diplomatic channel, that is, Khalilzad.”
The idea of a military surge in Iraq is already generating Republican resistance within the Senate. Any move to dump Khalilzad and tilt US policy toward Iraqi Shiite political dominance will likely generate similar howls of protest from Right Arabists in the James Baker crowd.
But it would represent an enormous victory for Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Right Zionists who have long pinned their hopes on him as the key to “dual rollback” in Iraq and Iran.
Based on what I have been reading lately it seems that the main concern of both Iran and the US these days is an alliance of the Sadrists with the Sunnis. Both oppose federalism and both want the US out.
The split between SCIRI and the Sadrists may open wider in the next few weeks with the introduction of the proposed new hydrocarbon law (drafted by and for US/UK oil companies) to the Iraqi Parliament. The next few months will be very interesting.