In his own words: March 16, 2003

08.17.07 | Comment?

Excerpts from March 16, 2003 NBC News Meet the Press interview between Vice President Cheney and Tim Russert. Again, it’s best to let the man speak for himself, there is nothing I can add that he didn’t say himself. It is worth comparing what he said on April 15, 1994 to what he says March 16, 2003. To put this in proper context, this interview was given on the eve of war with Iraq, the shooting had not yet begun.

MR. RUSSERT: Many Americans and many people around the world are asking one question: Why is it acceptable for the United States to lead a military attack against a nation that has not attacked the United States? What’s your answer?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, we have, I think admittedly, a new and unique set of circumstances we’re trying to deal with here. If you think back to the way we were organized in the last century, the 20th century, to deal with threats to the United States, or to our friends and allies, we had to deal with large states, significant military forces, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the kinds of threats we dealt with throughout the period of the Cold War, all of that changed on September 11 of a year and a half ago. Since that time, we’ve had to deal with the proposition that truly deadly weapons could be delivered to the United States by a handful of terrorists. We saw on 9/11 19 men hijack aircraft with airline tickets and box cutters, kill 3,000 Americans in a couple of hours. That attack would pale into insignificance compared to what could happen, for example, if they had a nuclear weapon and detonated it in the middle of one of our cities, or if they had unleashed weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons of some kind, smallpox or anthrax, on a major attack on the United States. That’s a whole different proposition for us to think about, how we deal with that.


MR. RUSSERT: […] What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I think I’ve just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

MR. RUSSERT: And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree, yes. And you’ll find the CIA, for example, and other key parts of our intelligence community disagree. Let’s talk about the nuclear proposition for a minute. We’ve got, again, a long record here. It’s not as though this is a fresh issue. In the late ’70s, Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear reactors from the French. 1981, the Israelis took out the Osirak reactor and stopped his nuclear weapons development at the time. Throughout the ’80s, he mounted a new effort. I was told when I was defense secretary before the Gulf War that he was eight to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon. And we found out after the Gulf War that he was within one or two years of having a nuclear weapon because he had a massive effort under way that involved four or five different technologies for enriching uranium to produce fissile material.

We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He’s had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong. And I think if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency and this kind of issue, especially where Iraq’s concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don’t have any reason to believe they’re any more valid this time than they’ve been in the past.


MR. RUSSERT: During the 2000 campaign you were on the program when we were talking about the Persian Gulf War and looking back and I asked whether you had any regrets about taking Saddam out at that time. And you said no. And then you added this, and I want to talk about it. Let’s watch:

(Videotape, August 27, 2000):

MR. CHENEY: Conversations I had with leaders in the region afterwards, they all supported the decision that was made not to go to Baghdad. They were concerned that we not get into a position where we shifted, instead of being the leader of an international coalition to roll back Iraqi aggression, to one in which we were an imperialist power willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world taking down governments.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: “Imperialist power,” “moving willy-nilly,” “taking down governments.” Is that how we’re going to be perceived this time?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I hope not, Tim. Of course, in ’91, there was a general consensus that we’d gone as far as we should. We’d achieved our objectives when we liberated Kuwait and that we shouldn’t go on to Baghdad. But there were several assumptions that was based on. One that all those U.N. Security Council resolutions would be enforced. None of them has been. That’s the major difference. And it was based on the proposition that Saddam Hussein probably wouldn’t survive. Most of the experts believed based upon the severe drubbing we administered to his forces in Kuwait that he was likely to be overthrown or ousted. Of course, that didn’t happen. He’s proven to be a much tougher customer than anybody expected.


MR. RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who’s a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he’s written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.

Now, if we get into a significant battle in Baghdad, I think it would be under circumstances in which the security forces around Saddam Hussein, the special Republican Guard, and the special security organization, several thousand strong, that in effect are the close-in defenders of the regime, they might, in fact, try to put up such a struggle. I think the regular army will not. My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces, and are likely to step aside.

Now, I can’t say with certainty that there will be no battle for Baghdad. We have to be prepared for that possibility. But, again, I don’t want to convey to the American people the idea that this is a cost-free operation. Nobody can say that. I do think there’s no doubt about the outcome. There’s no question about who is going to prevail if there is military action. And there’s no question but what it is going to be cheaper and less costly to do it now than it will be to wait a year or two years or three years until he’s developed even more deadly weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons. And the consequences then of having to deal with him would be far more costly than will be the circumstances today. Delay does not help.


MR. RUSSERT: The army’s top general said that we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there for several years in order to maintain stability.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree. We need, obviously, a large force and we’ve deployed a large force. To prevail, from a military standpoint, to achieve our objectives, we will need a significant presence there until such time as we can turn things over to the Iraqis themselves. But to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement.

MR. RUSSERT: We have had 50,000 troops in Kosovo for several years, a country of just five million people. This is a country of 23 million people. It will take a lot in order to secure it.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, but we’ve significantly drawn down our forces in Kosovo and in the Balkans. There’s no question but what we’ll have to have a presence there for a period of time. It is difficult now to specify how long. We will clearly want to take on responsibilities in addition to conducting military operations and eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime. We need to be prepared to provide humanitarian assistance, medical care, food, all of those other things that are required to have Iraq up and running again. And we are well-equipped to do that. We have got a lot of effort that’s gone into that.


MR. RUSSERT: Every analysis said this war itself would cost about $80 billion, recovery of Baghdad, perhaps of Iraq, about $10 billion per year. We should expect as American citizens that this would cost at least $100 billion for a two-year involvement.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can’t say that, Tim. There are estimates out there. It’s important, though, to recognize that we’ve got a different set of circumstances than we’ve had in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan you’ve got a nation without significant resources. In Iraq you’ve got a nation that’s got the second-largest oil reserves in the world, second only to Saudi Arabia. It will generate billions of dollars a year in cash flow if they get back to their production of roughly three million barrels of oil a day, in the relatively near future. And that flow of resources, obviously, belongs to the Iraqi people, needs to be put to use by the Iraqi people for the Iraqi people and that will be one of our major objectives.

But the point is this is not a nation without resources, and when it comes time to rebuild and to make the kinds of investments that are going to be required to give them a shot at achieving a truly representative government, a successful government, a government that can defend itself and protect its territorial integrity and look to the interests of its people, Iraq starts with significant advantages. It’s got a well- trained middle class, a highly literate work force, a high degree of technical sophistication. This is a country that I think, but for the rule of Saddam Hussein and his brutality and his diversion of the nation’s resources and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, can be one of the leading, perhaps the leading state in that part of the world in terms of developing a modern state and the kind of lifestyle that its people are entitled to.


MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe Saddam Hussein will use chemical weapons against U.S. troops?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I don’t know. I assume he may try. Of course as soon as he does it will be clear to the world we were absolutely right, that he does, in fact, have chemical weapons.

MR. RUSSERT: How will you respond?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We’ve got, I think, a military force that is the best equipped in history to deal with this kind of threat. Our troops are well trained. They’ve got a lot of equipment that’s designed specifically to permit them to operate in that kind of an environment. The other thing we have is just overwhelming capabilities in terms of going after an opposing force, the ability to move very fast, combined arms of air, for example, helicopters, artillery, and armor formations. It’s going to take a very brave individual to get close enough to our forces to strike at them with a chemical weapon.

MR. RUSSERT: If he did a widespread chemical attack, would we consider responding with nuclear?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can’t say how we would respond under the circumstances, Tim. We’ve always adopted the policy that if someone were to use a weapon of mass destruction—chemical, biological or nuclear—against the United States or U.S. forces, we reserve the right to use any means at our disposal to respond. And I’m sure that’ll continue to be our policy here. We would not want to telegraph what we might or might not do under those circumstances.


MR. RUSSERT: And we are back with the vice president. Front page in The New York Times: “Anger On Iraq Seen As New Al-Qaeda Recruiting Tool.” The Arab street will rise up, recruit more people. The president has embraced a new road map of the Middle East. Some say that was a political calculation to help with the war in Iraq. What will happen in the Arab street? And will more young Arabs, Muslims sign up to attack the United States?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can’t predict that, Tim. It’s possible. There’s another point of view, though, that I think is very valid here, important not to lose sight of, and to some extent the United States has established over the last several years, going back at least to the ’80’s, an unfortunate practice that we’ve often failed to respond effectively to attacks on the United States. And I think the impression has grown in that part of the world—I think Osama bin Laden believes this and I think Saddam Hussein did, at least up until 9/11—that they could strike the U.S. with impunity, and we had situations in ’83 when the Marine barracks was blown up in Beirut. There was no effective U.S. response. In ’93 the World Trade Center in New York hit; no effective response. In ’96, Khobar Towers, in ’98 the east Africa embassy bombings, in 2000, the USS Cole was hit, and each time there was almost no credible response from the United States to those attacks.
Everything changed on 9/11 when we got hit here at home and we had a different president in place, who was bound and determined to go forward. And I firmly believe, along with, you know, men like Bernard Lewis, who’s one of the great, I think, students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, towards calming things in that part of the world. People who are moderate, people who want to believe in the United States, and want to support us will be willing to stand up because the United States is going to stand with them and not pull back and disappear when the going gets tough.

One of the keys, for example, with respect to Iraq is our friends in the region have been willing to step up now and be supportive of what we need to do from a military standpoint because they believe this president will do exactly what he says he will do. They don’t want to stand up and stick their necks out if the U.S. is then going to fade as we have so often in the past, so…

MR. RUSSERT: But a lot of countries, Mr. Vice President, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the neighbors of Saddam, other than Kuwait, are not supportive.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I think we will find, Tim, that if in fact we have to do this with military force that there will be sighs of relief in many quarters in the Middle East that the United States finally followed through and deal effectively with what they all perceive to be a major threat, but they’re all reluctant to stand up if Saddam’s still in power and if there’s a possibility he will survive once again to threaten them and to threaten their region. So for the United States to follow through here, be determined, be decisive, do exactly what we said we were going to do, I think we’ll find we’ve got far more friends out there than many people think.


MR. RUSSERT: North Korea an imminent threat; they have a nuclear bomb, perhaps on line to build six more by June. Why not have a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea or at least sit down with them, one-on-one, and try to resolve that crisis?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: The situation in North Korea is very serious. We recognize that. We are thoroughly engaged diplomatically in an effort to deal with it. Each set of circumstances we’re faced with around the world is different. It doesn’t automatically mean an approach that makes sense in Iraq is necessarily an approach that would make sense in North Korea. North Korea, we think the key is a multilateral approach. Everybody always wants us to be multilateral and we think it’s appropriate here.

The matter has been referred to the U.N. Security Council now from the International Atomic Energy Agency when North Korea violated their existing safeguards agreements. That’s been now referred to the U.N. The U.N.’s going to have to come to grips with it.

But it also is important that our friends in the region deal effectively with it. Though, they’re far more directly affected than we are—Japan, South Korea and especially China—the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver those will, I think, probably set off an arms race in that part of the world, and others, perhaps Japan, for example, may be forced to consider whether or not they want to readdress the nuclear question. That’s not in China’s interest, and we’ve been working with China, with Japan and Korea—I’m going to be out there next month; Colin Powell was recently there to try to put together effective international approach to North Korea to make it clear to them that it is not in their interest to proceed with building more nuclear weapons.

MR. RUSSERT: What’s after Iraq? Will we consider military action to pre-empt the nuclear program of North Korea, of Iran?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, I didn’t come this morning to announce any new military ventures or, frankly, to take any off the table. We haven’t thought in those terms. The fact of the matter is we hope we can deal with those issues by peaceful means wherever that kind of problem arises. It’s one of the reasons the president tried so hard to have the U.N. Security Council be effective with respect to the Iraq question is because there are these other issues out there. They are best addressed if possible through the U.N. Security Council. But it’ll only work if the council is going to be a meaningful organization that is prepared to enforce its own resolutions. Up till now they haven’t been willing to do that. We hope they will do it. And I’m sure we’ll continue to take an international approach to address this proliferation question.

But it is a major issue and you’ve touched on it this morning, that I think back on the discussions we’ve had in years past, we’ve worried about the possibility of proliferation. But it is now here. It’s a real threat, and it’s growing. There are increasing number of nations out there that are looking to acquire these capabilities and the world would be radically different if some of these rogue regimes do, in fact, acquire that capability.

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