Cheney Goes on Offensive over Iraq War

Vice President Dick Cheney in a short speech Monday morning again defended the justification for the war in Iraq and rejected demands for immediate troop withdrawals. Madeleine Brand speaks with NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving about Cheney's speech, and about the growing debate over American troops in Iraq.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, why little green soldiers are popping up all over Chicago.

But first, to Washington, where Vice President Dick Cheney today delivered the latest in a series of staunch defenses of the war in Iraq, but in language far less inflammatory than he and other White House figures used last week. He continued to argue with critics of the war, but recognized the right to dissent.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Nobody is saying we should not be having this discussion or that you cannot re-examine a decision made by the president and the Congress some years ago. To the contrary, I believe it is critical that we continue to remind ourselves why this nation took action and why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

BRAND: But the vice president said it was no legitimate for critics to accuse the president of lying to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. He admitted the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was flawed, but said it was sincerely believed.

The debate over the US justification for the invasion and over the conduct of the continuing war has exploded into the headlines over the past week because of a series of events in the House and the Senate. Joining us to talk about those events and the future course of the controversy is NPR senior editor Ron Elving.

And, Ron, this new tone coming from the administration--we heard some of it yesterday from the president while he was still in China.

RON ELVING reporting:

That's right, Madeleine. The president yesterday backed off the attack on congressional Democrats and others who have been questioning the war, saying they do, in fact, have a right to do so and even volunteering a salute to John Murtha. That's the Pennsylvania congressman who surprised everybody by calling for a pullout in the next six months last week.

BRAND: Right. And the vice president mentioned Murtha today, as well.

ELVING: Yes. Mr. Cheney called him a friend and a colleague and a patriot and a Marine, and he might have also added he's been normally the biggest ally that the Pentagon has among House Democrats and has been for 30-odd years. You don't want to pick a fight with this guy, and I think the White House and the Republican National Committee probably found that out in their polling over the last few days.

BRAND: Mm-hmm. But both the vice president and the president still say that it's out of bounds to say that the prewar intelligence was misrepresented, and here's what Mr. Cheney said today.

Vice Pres. CHENEY: The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false. Senator John McCain put it best: `It is a lie to say that the president lied to the American people.'

ELVING: You know, that's the ground that they've decided to defend, Madeleine. They'll say that the weapons of mass destruction were not found, but they will insist they expected to find them. And they will also insist that the Democrats and other war critics today expected at that time to find the same thing. It's equally important for them to insist that everyone involved in that decision saw the same intelligence.

BRAND: But that's not entirely accurate, is it?

ELVING: Well, members of Congress were seeing some of the same evidence, but there are fierce debates about whether the administration was sharing contradictory evidence, things that may have created doubts about invading Iraq.

BRAND: So what's next, Ron?

ELVING: Congress has gone home for an extended Thanksgiving recess now, but the House members are going to have that vituperative debate from Friday night over John Murtha and his proposal ringing in their ears. Senators are also going to be thinking about the amendments that they added to the defense bill that essentially contest the administration's handling of the war, and all these elected people are going to find out what their constituents feel. And the White House, for its part, has clearly had some kind of a high-level meeting where they decided that the harsh tone of their blow-back strategy last week was not helping them. So now I think they're going to try to work behind the scenes, try to diffuse this effort by Congress to assert its own will on the war.

But what no one can control is what happens in Iraq, because the events and the continuing chaos there are what we see on our TVs, and that's what's driving the debate in our country.

BRAND: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Thanks a lot, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: And to get more of his political analysis, you can read his column Watching Washington. It runs Mondays on our Web site, npr.org.

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