Cheney Attacks Critics, Defends Iraq Strategy

During a speech in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney attacks critics of the Iraq war, accusing them of revising history on the war and pre-war intelligence. He warns against what he called a "precipitous pullout." Critics, meanwhile, continue to demand an exit strategy for Iraq.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Vice President Dick Cheney said in Washington today he doesn't mind the debate about the war in Iraq and prewar intelligence, but Cheney warned against what he called a precipitous pullout of Iraq, and he denied that the administration misled Americans into war. War critics, meanwhile, want the Bush administration to address something else, an exit plan. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Cheney was on friendly ground today at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that's closely connected with the Bush administration. He used his 20-minute speech to try to clear the air with Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who's taken a lot of heat from Republicans for proposing a pullout from Iraq.

(Soundbite of speech)

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I disagree with Jack and believe his proposal would not serve the best interests of this nation. But he's a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion.

KELEMEN: Cheney did not have such kind words for others, those who have been accusing the Bush administration of misleading Americans and hyping the prewar intelligence on Iraq. He accused some war critics of revisionism. As for an exit strategy, Vice President Cheney didn't offer anything new today, only to warn against what he believes are the dangers of terrorists taking over Iraq.

(Soundbite of speech)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: Those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions. Would the United States and other free nations be better off or worse off with Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri in control of Iraq? It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone.

KELEMEN: While Cheney repeated the administration's theme to stay the course, John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat, today defended his call to withdraw US forces within six months. He told reporters in Pennsylvania that Americans were ahead of him in this.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): They think this is the most important problem facing the country, these people that have e-mailed me, and they want to see an exit strategy. So the public is emotionally tied in to finding a solution to this thing, and that's what I hope the administration will find out. You can't spin this. This is not something you spin. You've got to have a real solution to this problem. This is not a war of words. This is a war, a war.

KELEMEN: The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, also argued today that it's time for the Bush administration to rethink its strategy and its goals.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Iraq will not become a model democracy anytime soon. Instead, we need to refocus our attention of our mission on preserving America's fundamental interests in Iraq, and there are two of them in my view.

KELEMEN: They are, he said, to prevent a full-blown civil war, which could spill over into the region, and not to let Iraq become what it wasn't before the war, a haven for terrorists. Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that he still thinks that with better training of Iraqi forces and a better reconstruction program, the Bush administration can succeed in Iraq. He's not one to call for an immediate pullout, but he pointed out a major dilemma.

Sen. BIDEN: The hard truth is that our large military presence in Iraq is both necessary and increasingly counterproductive.

KELEMEN: Some war critics argue that US troops have become a catalyst for violence in Iraq and the US presence is fueling the insurgency. It's an argument that hits home with many Americans as public support for the war and President Bush decline. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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