In an exclusive interview, Dick Cheney tells Daniel Collings that Obama is wrong to say sorry for waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. The former Vice-President turned critic-in-chief has no regrets: if he upset Blair, he was ‘just doing his job’
Richard B. Cheney, the 46th Vice-President of the United States, is back. Though he left the White House wheelchair-bound in January, looking for all the world like he just wanted to see out his days fishing in Wyoming, his retirement didn’t last long. Unwilling to settle into the traditional role of elder statesman, 68-year-old Cheney has emerged as a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. This most secretive of Vice-Presidents has transformed himself into Obama’s outspoken critic-in-chief, defending the Bush administration’s policy on ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, which included waterboarding, even as the new President outlaws them. Such decisions, Cheney has warned, may raise the terrorist threat to Americans.
Perhaps it’s concern for his country that has prompted Cheney to agree to a rare and in-depth interview. Perhaps it’s part of his new charismatic, party-leading persona. When George W. Bush rode off into the Texas sunset, he declared that Obama ‘deserved his silence’. Cheney, once such a loyal follower of Dubya, clearly disagrees. While other members of the Bush administration have appeared apologetic or reluctant to defend Guantanamo, Cheney has been proud to do so.
I arrange to meet Cheney at his ‘transition office’, some eight miles outside of Washington, DC. The office is easy to miss. Housed in a nondescript low-rise building, Cheney’s new quarters are modest in the extreme, and he shares the ground floor with a photocopying shop. I find Cheney’s suite down the corridor, marked only by a piece of paper taped to the door, and as I walk in I am greeted by his two labradors, one black, one yellow, who wander freely about. Before long I’m shown into the great man’s office. One of the dogs, Jackson, follows me in and curls up in the middle of the floor. Cheney is tie-less and seems relaxed. Given that just months ago he was a heartbeat away from the presidency, the atmosphere is disarmingly low-key.
We spar briefly about Gordon Brown and the British distaste for ‘enhanced interrogation’, a subject on which Cheney remains tight-lipped. Gordon Brown is going to publish the interrogation guidelines used by the British intelligence services as part of his drive for openness. Is that a move he would support? ‘I don’t know enough about it to have a view one way or the other,’ says Cheney. Brown has been quite vocal about torture and enhanced interrogation techniques, I say. Cheney, deadpan: ‘I haven’t seen his comments.’
But when it comes to President Obama’s views on torture and interrogation, Cheney is clearly not impressed. Last month he offered a lengthy critique of Obama’s approach in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. On the same day, Obama defended his policy at the National Archives, with the two speeches separated by only a matter of minutes. ‘I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe,’ Obama declared. ‘I could not disagree more.’ Cheney meanwhile described a complete ban on certain interrogation techniques as ‘recklessness cloaked in righteousness... staying on that path will only lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people’.
To me he says: ‘I’m still trying to sort out in my own mind where President Obama is going with his national security policy. He is about to make a big speech in Cairo to the Muslim world. I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said when he went to Europe on his first trip. That’s sometimes referred to in the conservative press in the US as “the apology tour”. That’s not something I would think was appropriate.’ Cheney, one can safely assume, doesn’t do apologies.
What is his evaluation of the Bush administration’s overall record in Iraq? ‘I think it was a sound policy. Obviously I supported it. I think we’ve made major progress. That Saddam Hussein is gone and is no more is very, very significant. Instead of a dictatorship in the middle of the Middle East that had started two wars, had produced and used WMD, and was a prime terror-sponsoring state, we now have a budding democracy.’
And what do you say to those who argue that whatever the ends, the means for getting there, in terms of lives lost, involved too great a sacrifice?
‘Well, my judgment was that in fact we did the right thing. When you get into conflicts and warfare there is always a cost. On the other hand, when you think about Saddam Hussein and the slaughter that he committed against his own people and his continued sponsorship of terror, for example, I think the cost would have been far greater than it was if we had not acted.’
And if Cheney is unrepentant about the past, he has taken a similarly uncompromising attitude towards the future of the Republican party. He recently joined the highly conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in arguing that the party must remain true to its core beliefs and not alienate its base. In doing so, he clashed with more moderate Republicans such as Colin Powell, who insist that the party must become more inclusive to attract more voters.
There is, of course, a rich tradition of collaboration between the Conservatives in Britain and the Republican party, particularly during the Thatcher/Reagan period. Cheney talks admiringly about Margaret Thatcher, whom he met in the run-up to the first Gulf war when he was secretary of defense. ‘She basically kicked out her staff and my staff and the two of us spent two hours talking about what we were doing and why we were doing it. She had a lot of suggestions and recommendations that were really good, based on her experience in the Falklands. It was the kind of conversation that I couldn’t have had with any other head of government other than our own.’
And what about relations with Tony Blair? How did they compare?
‘Well, with PM Thatcher, there was a close personal relationship with President Reagan that had preceded that earlier period. With Tony Blair it was interesting because he and the second President Bush had a close personal relationship. They were domestically from different ends of the political spectrum and Blair had had a close relationship with Bill Clinton. But it was a very significant relationship. I remember a session when the PM came to Camp David, in the fall of 2002 I guess. We had a session in the President’s office up there. I sat in. The two of them talked about strategy and decided on going to the United Nations for the first resolution. I also remember very much the day that PM Blair addressed the Joint Session of Congress. One of my duties as Vice-President was to preside with the Speaker of the House over Joint Sessions. We sat in the two chairs up there. Listening to Tony Blair’s speech, it was superb. He did a first-class job of capturing what was at stake and why we were doing what we were doing.’
So far, it sounds as if Britain had and has no better friend than Dick Cheney. But of course the reality is that as Vice-President, Cheney would often drive the British up the wall. He sat in on every meeting between President Bush and the British Prime Minister but rarely said a word. ‘He was a brooding presence,’ recalls one senior British official. ‘We just didn’t have a relationship with him.’ So what was Cheney’s game? At this point, a brief but satisfied smile creeps across the former Vice-President’s lips. ‘I’m reluctant to characterise it myself,’ he says. ‘My prime function was t o advise the President... when we got elected that was an area he asked me specifically to spend time on — including things like intelligence and so forth. And he permitted me to get involved in whatever I wanted to get involved in.’
By all accounts, Cheney did a great deal more than this. He was able to marshal his close relationship with Bush to exert considerable influence over policy and ride roughshod over the bureaucracy. And for all Cheney’s warm words about the special relationship, too often, at least in British eyes, his influence would be put to work to obstruct the agenda pursued by Blair, and later Gordon Brown.
On this theme, Cheney, no longer smiling, becomes more animated. What would you say to those who saw you as a hindrance to British plans? ‘Well, I was doing my job,’ he responds bluntly. ‘It would be totally out of character and nor would I have been doing my job if I’d said to the President, “This is what I believe, but oh gee, the Brits want something else so I’ll back off.” He’s going to have to hear what I think is the right answer. He’s the one who makes the decision. He gets the big bucks and lives in the fancy house. If he wants to accord the special significance of a particular ally, then that’s his call. But I wouldn’t change my view, in terms of the advice I gave him on those issues, just because the British allies had a contrary view.’
So Cheney’s conception of the special relationship is one in which British support is very welcome, but not something that merits changes in American policy. He accepts that on occasion Tony Blair did extract concessions, such as the decision to seek a second UN resolution to authorise war in Iraq in the spring of 2003. But he makes clear that such concessions were won against his better judgment. ‘I did not think that we needed to go back [to the UN] a second time,’ Cheney tells me. ‘So the President made a decision, because the PM wanted him to go back for a second resolution, but I didn’t think it made sense.’
Beyond the second UN resolution, examples of Blair winning policy changes over Cheney’s opposition are few and far between. Did you feel the coalition with the UK imposed much of a burden on the United States? His reply is telling: ‘Oh, I don’t think it was that significant a burden.’
And what about the special relationship in the 21st century? Do the flagging Republicans have anything to learn from David Cameron’s success? Apparently not: the man who spoke so warmly of Margaret Thatcher has no words of praise for her successor as Tory leader. ‘I haven’t spent much time studying what David Cameron’s views are domestically,’ Cheney is dismissive. ‘I am a conservative. I believe in limited government. I believe in low taxes. I believe in a strong national defence.... But I don’t judge where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing based on the Conservative party in Britain.’
Cheney clearly has few regrets about his time in government and he remains a conservative in the most literal sense. Whether it be Anglo-American relations, national security policy or the Republican party, he is poised to defend the record of the Bush administration and argue for more of the same. Underlying this view is a cyclical theory of politics. ‘I think we [the Republican party] will go through a resurgence,’ he tells me. ‘We’ve been through these cycles before in both countries.’ Whether this is true remains to be seen, but one thing appears certain: Dick Cheney intends to stay around for some time to come, whether President Obama, or anyone else, likes it or not.