Cheney of Arabia

Is Dick Cheney coming back for more? The Vice President has just completed a week-long tour of the Middle East that eerily retraced the visits he made to Arab capitals in March 2002 to drum up support for an American-led invasion over Iraq’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

A look back at that earlier trip suggests that Cheney not only ignored the advice that he was given by Arab allies, he misrepresented their opposition to a prospective attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is thus worth looking closely at Cheney’s latest trip to the region, during which he stated that Arab allies share the Bush administration’s concern about the “mutual threat” posed by Iran and threatened military force over Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. It’s a stretch, as it was in 2002, for Cheney to suggest that shared concern somehow automatically translates into Arab support for a U.S. military option–and of course it’s wrong once again to use such a misrepresentation in building a case for war.

During and immediately after the 2002 trip, Cheney dismissed indications that Arab allies were opposed to a U.S. war against Iraq. “No, not at all,” Cheney assured CBS’s Bob Schieffer. “What I came away with, Bob, is the sense that they share our concern.” Cheney repeated that reading of Arab attitudes to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, saying, “What I would say is that our friends in the region are equally concerned about the problems we see in Iraq.” Giving NBC’s Tim Russert a figurative nudge, Cheney suggested that what Arab leaders said about Saddam in public was not what they told him in private. “I wouldn’t believe everything I read in the newspapers,” Cheney advised Russert. “I had, as I say, private, confidential meetings. They are able, under those circumstances, because we know each other, to talk honestly and frank with one another, and that’s exactly what we did.” Cheney pleaded confidentiality about what the Arab leaders actually told him, but he implied that they supported Saddam’s overthrow. “Many of them know,” Cheney volunteered, embedding the notion of tight mutual thinking, “that right after us, they’re high on his list of governments he’d like to do in.”

But what the Vice President told millions of American television viewers on the Sunday talk show rounds on March 24, 2002 bears scant resemblance to what Arab leaders were saying at the time, in public or in private. After Cheney left Cairo, Egyptian officials said publicly that President Mubarak had warned him about “the dangerous consequences” of attacking Iraq and that he had opposed any “unilateral” U.S. action. In Jordan, King Abdullah II went so far as to issue a statement after the Cheney visit calling for Iraq to be settled “through dialogue and peaceful means” and saying he had warned Cheney about “the repercussions of any possible strike on Iraq and the danger of that on the stability and security of the region.” On the eve of Cheney’s arrival in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, strongly warned against an Iraq attack in a rare television interview, on ABC: “I do not believe it is in the United States’ interests, or the interest of the region, or the world’s interest, to do so. And I don’t believe it will achieve the desired result.”

A month before Abdullah received Cheney in Saudi Arabia, I interviewed the Saudi leader on his farm outside Riyadh. I asked him what he would say to a U.S. plan to use force to change the regime in Iraq. He said he had already given President Bush “an answer on this matter…and that is where my answer will remain.” But at one point he told me what he later told ABC: “I do not believe that the war on terrorism applies to… Iraq.”

Were the Arab leaders double-talking, as Cheney seemed to imply? Five years later, I am not aware of evidence that any of these three key Arab allies were saying one thing in public during Cheney’s trip and another thing in private. As it happens, I had lengthy off-the-record interviews with senior Arab officials on the subject before and after Cheney’s trip. In each case, the officials told me that their governments were strongly opposed to a war against Iraq.

One of them said, for example: “Cheney comes in. People thought he is coming to get a blessing for war. What he heard was, ’We are not for it.’”

Another told me: “What is the relationship between the Taliban and Iraq? If the issue is weapons of mass destruction, then everybody is aware that Iraq’s capacity has been demolished while others in the area [i.e. Israel] have a capacity that nobody is talking about. If you are an Arab, the question is, Why Iraq and not Israel? Why open files selectively? We warn, you can’t ignore public opinion.”

A third, plainly exasperated senior Arab official called the idea of attacking Iraq “ridiculous” and “disastrous” and mocked Rumsfeld, who he described as “hopeless.” “There is basically this attitude, ’We can do anything,’” the official told me. “I hope that will change, frankly.”

It is certainly true that once the Bush administration ignored Arab advice and dispatched tens of thousands of troops to the region, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as close U.S. allies, agreed to provide limited logistical support for the war. The main U.S. ground, sea and air operations had to operate out of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, three tiny sheikhdoms that feel heavily dependent on a U.S. military deterrent for their survival. In the end, even Turkey, a NATO ally, refused to allow its soil to be used to launch a ground invasion of Iraq.

The warnings that Arab allies gave about the disastrous consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq turned out to be correct, as we now know. Things are going so poorly for the Bush administration that as Cheney made his way through the Middle East last week, the White House was reversing policy and agreeing to hold rare talks with Iranian officials about how to stabilize Iraq. There’s reason to think that Cheney’s day has past. The ostensible reason for his latest tour was to rally Arab support for American damage-control efforts in Iraq.

Yet, during this Middle East swing, Cheney curiously stuck to his 2002 script, substituting the Islamic regime in Iran for Saddam’s regime in Iraq. Speaking on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, also a stop on his 2002 tour, Cheney told American sailors:

“With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike.”

“We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats.”

“And we’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”

In interviews just before and just after his meetings with Arab leaders, Cheney conveyed the sense that the Bush administration and Arab leaders are on the same page about Iran. He informed Fox News’s Bret Maier that Arab allies share the U.S.’s concerns. Iran is “obviously a major source of concern not only for the United States but also for most of our friends in the area…My experience has been generally throughout the region that everybody is really focused on the Iranian situation. It’s a top priority, if you will, in terms of concerns and the prospects of the Iranians developing nuclear weapons.”

If Cheney is suggesting that Arab governments are concerned about Iran’s expanding influence, slippery behavior and nuclear capability, he is right. Arab leaders were indeed very wary of Saddam Hussein back in 2002. But Arab leaders did not support the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 and, notwithstanding Cheney’s insinuations, there is no evidence that they would support a U.S. strike or full-scale war on Iran in the future. The U.S. failures in Iraq, in fact, have left Arab allies even more doubtful about the Bush administration’s capacity for good judgement than they were five years ago. Like he did in 2002, Jordan’s King Abdullah II issued a statement after his talks with Cheney on Monday, affirming that “Jordan stands in support of a peaceful resolution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities that would spare the region further tensions.”

That’s the same message that senior Arab officials are again stressing to me in off-the-record interviews. They’re saying that the U.S. had better find a way of negotiating with Iran on the nuclear concern, before things get further out of hand. Despite the fiasco in Iraq, I suppose it remains to be seen whether the Bush administration will absorb the advice of its Arab allies this time.