STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
We're about to listen to one of the most influential voices in the White House at a moment when officials are rethinking Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney strongly backed the war. Yesterday, he sat down with NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams, who's with us. Juan, good morning.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What did you want to know from the vice president?
WILLIAMS: Well, there've been a lot of hints lately that the White House recognizes the war isn't going well, especially in this political season they want to take another look. And yesterday, I had the chance to talk to the vice president about it. Every year, White House officials do interviews with radio reporters. It's like a big carnival on, you know, right outside the White House, with a giant tent. And cabinet officials wander from one interview to another.
In my case, though, I was invited to go into the vice president's office in the West Wing. Steve, it's a cramped office with a large antique map on the wall. A bold line cuts across several states, indicating someone's journey. So I asked Mr. Cheney about it.
Vice President DICK CHENEY: That's my great-grandfather. You know, he served with the 21st Ohio. Born in New Hampshire and immigrated to Ohio and enlisted in April of 1861 and served throughout the war, Chickamauga and so forth.
WILLIAMS: So with a map of his great grandfather's journeys during the Civil War behind him, I asked the vice president about another war - the war in Iraq.
As you've been traveling around the country this campaign season, you've been making the case for why Iraq matters. And here I quote you, you say “The terrorists want to seize control of a country in the Middle East so they have a base for launching attacks. They've declared an intention to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to cause mass death here in the United States.” If the threat is that serious, why not send hundreds of thousands of troops to defeat them?
Vice President CHENEY: Well, the problem we're faced with out there is -obviously, there have been problems in Afghanistan, problems in Pakistan, problems in Iraq, problems in Saudi Arabia. You know, and the key to success is getting the locals into the fight on the right side. That means both from the standpoint of political systems in Afghanistan and Iraq where we've had to stand up new governments. It also means training and equipping their own forces. In the final analysis, the U.S. cannot take on direct military responsibility for all of those countries. That would not be sound policy or sound strategy.
WILLIAMS: But I was talking about Iraq specifically.
Vice President CHENEY: Mm-hmm.
WILLIAMS: Why not put a larger force on the ground?
Vice President CHENEY: Well, because - and the judgment has been up till now - that the key for us in Iraq is to get the Iraqis into the fight. And we've got 140,000, roughly, troops there now - U.S. and coalition forces. And we've worked very aggressively to stand up, and we're about 75 percent of the way there. In terms of getting an Iraqi force that's able to provide for their own security, the sooner we do that, the sooner we can reduce our own presence and turn things over to them. But, they've still got a long way to go before they'll be in a position where they can take over prime responsibility themselves.
WILLIAMS: Do you think you're getting good advice, good estimates from the generals who tell you that they have enough men and women on the ground to get the job done?
Vice President CHENEY: I think we get honest advice from them. I think George Casey gives it to us straight in terms of what he thinks he needs. And if he thinks he needs more troops, we'll send him more. We have, in fact, beefed him up on a couple of occasions in connections with holding elections, for example, or moving in a brigade we have positioned in Kuwait and send it up into Iraq to help. Or recent adjustments we made in terms of putting more troops, U.S. troops into Baghdad to help with the Baghdad security problem.
WILLIAMS: But given what you say about the threat that's posed by the chaos in Iraq and the continuing, in fact, rising death toll as we've seen, you got to wonder if the generals are telling you the right information about what they need.
Vice President CHENEY: I spent some time with the secretary of defense myself, Juan, the men that we've got serving at the upper levels of the U.S. military there, I think are some absolutely outstanding individuals. George Casey, John Abizaid - sort of had to lead responsibilities in Iraq and for that region - are outstanding officers. They know the region very well. Abizaid even speaks the language. They are, I think, very good advisers to the president. And they're the guys on the ground who have to, in fact, execute on the policy.
WILLIAMS: So they're not telling you what you want to hear, you don't think?
Vice President CHENEY: No.
WILLIAMS: Same thing with intelligence, with CIA, and with the relationship - the quality of intelligence that you're getting here.
Vice President CHENEY: Well, the quality of intelligence - intelligence is a different proposition. It's rarely 100 percent in terms of the accuracy. And obviously, there were problems with intelligence in Iraq early on. We get a lot better intelligence now. I think that we're inside Iraq, that we got a lot of people on the ground. The Iraqis have got an intelligence service stood up themselves. We've got a lot of people obviously working that account as well, too.
WILLIAMS: There was a story about you sending coordinates over to David Kay about where to look for weapons for mass destruction. And when I saw that, I thought, is it the case that you think you have separate sources of intelligence as opposed to what's coming through our central intelligence and established intelligence networks like that?
Vice President CHENEY: Yeah, I didn't send any coordinates. Somebody on the staff may have been in touch with him. But I wasn't in a habit to calling David Kay at 3:00 in the morning to give him coordinates that -where he needed to go look. We may - there may have made been a request come in through a congressional officer, something like that - that somebody had heard from somebody, or somebody suggested that there where weapons hidden at a particular spot and that would have been passed on to the appropriate people to check it out, that kind of thing. But I have not been involved in making those kinds of calls.
WILLIAMS: You've accused the Democrats of a self-defeating pessimism. And the whole question of about what is cut and run, and given the conversations that have been taking place here at the White House over the weekend, looking for new strategies. Have you redefined what that means, cut and run?
Vice President CHENEY: I would define it in terms of what the strategy is of our opponents. Keep in mind, and I think General Casey made this point in his briefing. We've never been defeated in a stand up fight in Iraq in over three years. What the enemy is banking on is that they can break our will, that the American people don't have the stomach for the fight.
And Osama bin Laden's believed this for years. He goes back and cites the experience of Beirut in 1983, where after we lost 240 some people, we then withdrew from Beirut and so forth. He cites these examples to validate his strategy. And when we see the Democratic Party recommending that we withdraw from Iraq, that basically is validating the al-Qaida strategy. It's says yeah, Osama bin Laden's right. The American people don't have the stomach for the fight. We can't afford to let that happen.
WILLIAMS: You've said famously this business about last throes of this insurgency. Do you think they're in the last throes now?
Vice President CHENEY: I can't say that. I would have expected that the political process we set in motion, the three national elections and so forth would have resulted in a lower level of violence than we're seeing it today. It hasn't happened yet. I can't say that we're over the hump in terms of violence. No.
WILLIAMS: And in terms of civil war, would you call it that?
Vice President CHENEY: No. I don't think it's a civil war. You've got a united government, a unity government in place. You've got united military forces in terms of the army, and to some extent the security force. When I think civil war, I think, you know, Antietam, Gettysburg. I don't think we're there yet.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I appreciate the time.
Vice President CHENEY: Thanks, Juan.
INSKEEP: Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking yesterday to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams who's with us. And Juan, I noticed you asked the vice president about people in the White House rethinking Iraq. And he responded by talking about Democrats who he then mentioned in the same breath with Osama bin Laden.
WILLIAMS: Yes. Well, over the weekend, Steve, the White House - the president at the White House had a meeting with senior leaders both in the Pentagon, people from state as well, and the White House - to look at different strategies that might be employed, whether or not they could put in place everything from benchmarks - they're reluctant to call them timetables - for changes in terms of our strategy or tactics in Iraq.
INSKEEP: Is this an awkward moment, then, for White House officials because they want to change something, but also want to blame the other party for wanting to change things?
WILLIAMS: That's right, Steve. But what's even more awkward is that, of course, you've got Republicans who are also challenging the White House. I'm thinking here of Senators Kay Baily Hutchison, John Warner. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is recently quoted as saying “We're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan in Iraq is not working.” So they've got a serious problem in terms of the politics at the White House.
INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Appreciate it.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.
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