WASHINGTON -- As constitutional president of the Senate, Dick Cheney almost always attends the Tuesday luncheon of Republican senators. He almost never says anything. But at last week's session, he spoke out -- at length, vigorously and in a way that revealed the Bush administration's secret concerns and real intentions about Iraq.
To begin with, Vice President Cheney sought to allay worries about President Bush's leadership stemming from his unusual press conference a week earlier. Next came reassurance that failing efforts for a second United Nations resolution on Iraq were intended to bail out the British government and did not signal lessened U.S. resolve. Finally, he promised a rapid, satisfactory conclusion to the war.
Cheney's war talk behind closed doors responded to concern by Republican war hawks that Bush had gone astray by following Secretary of State Colin Powell into the quagmire of U.N. diplomacy. Worries by Republican senators have been fanned by supporters asking what has happened to the resolute war president. Delaying military action, instead of building support, diminished confidence. As an early advocate of changing the regime in Baghdad, Cheney was reassuring Bush's core constituency.
No vice president has been as influential as Dick Cheney in so many policy areas, but none recently has been so secluded or reticent. While he seldom gives public addresses, he says little even in such private venues as the weekly senatorial luncheon. When asked there whether he would like to make a few remarks, he normally declines.
Thus, Cheney had everybody's full attention last week when he accepted the routine invitation to speak from Sen. Rick Santorum, the Republican Conference chairman. While the vice president is normally phlegmatic, he was highly animated last Tuesday.
Cheney began by talking about George W. Bush. Since the rare White House tactical error in trying to deliver a presidential speech in the guise of a press conference, many Bush supporters have feared he has lost the aura of command that transformed him after Sept. 11, 2001. Cheney asserted Bush is in command and there is no need for him to "flail around."
As for the unseemly lobbying of U.N. Security Council members, Cheney told the senators this had no substantive importance. The delay countenanced by the U.S. was strictly an attempt to save British Prime Minister Tony Blair from opposition in his own party and his own government. The implication: Powell may take the U.N. seriously, but Cheney -- and, presumably, Bush -- do not.