Cheney's war talk

Posted: Mar 17, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Cheney closed by addressing apprehension about the war that grips even senators who strongly approve of the administration's course. Unlike the U.S. military commanders in the coming conflict who stress the uncertainties of war, the vice president predicted victory. It will be concluded "quickly and confidently," he promised.

While Cheney gave heart to worried Republican senators, his words did not reassure the handful at the Tuesday gathering concerned less about victory than what happens after victory. They have been approached by fellow parliamentarians from Germany (including pro-war opposition Christian Democrats) and Russia to express concern about the tough American approach. Their British counterparts also complained last week when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the U.S. could launch the war alone, without even Britain's alliance.

That may have been what Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had in mind Feb. 20 in an address at Kansas State University. "Allowing a rush to war in Iraq to create divisions in those institutions and alliances that will help sustain American security and world stability is a short-sighted and dangerous course of action," said Hagel.

Nearly a month after that admonition, the vice president is suggesting privately that going to war with Iraq is essentially a U.S. venture with the quest for U.N. sanctioning merely a means of securing Britain as a junior military partner. That reflects Bush administration officials who argue that the United States, as the last surviving superpower, must act on its own to shape the world. Colin Powell has fought that mindset, but his statement Thursday about removing Saddam Hussein without U.N. authorization was an implicit admission that Cheney is in the driver's seat.