Analysis: Cheney defends Iraq war, skips failures

September 5, 2011 - 3:30 AM
People Dick Cheney

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, left, is interviewed on the

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dick Cheney's autobiography presents a robust defense of his push for the U.S. invasion of Iraq without critically examining two issues central to America's near-failure in the war: the Bush administration's decision to disband the country's army and banish all members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Cheney has said that "In My Time" would cause "heads to explode" in Washington, and it is juicy reading for its harsh criticism of two secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and one defense secretary, Robert Gates. Not surprising was Cheney's adulation of Gates' Pentagon predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, the vice president's political mentor.

Cheney's parting shot after decades of public service comes in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The book has rekindled debate over the rationale to attack Iraq in 2003 and the cost in American lives and dollars. It also has focused attention on whether the war diverted U.S. attention from catching al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and eradicating the group's hide-outs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Cheney and former President George W. Bush had said invading Iraq and removing Saddam was imperative after Sept. 11. They insisted Saddam was working with bin Laden and that Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction to use against its neighbors or to give to al-Qaida for use against America.

But the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, which Congress created, found "no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."

Despite that and other solid evidence to the contrary, Cheney insists that Iraq was a nexus of terrorism and Saddam was working hand-in-glove with bin Laden.

Confronted by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Cheney does accept that Saddam did not have such armaments, an error that Cheney blames on faulty U.S. intelligence. Some critics say he carefully selected intelligence material that made the case for Saddam having those weapons while ignoring evidence on the other side.

Cheney virtually ignores the conduct of the war effort to the point where the Bush administration began to realize that the U.S. was on the verge of failure in 2006, three years after the invasion.

Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims raged. It was not uncommon in late 2006 and into 2007 for authorities to find as many as 100 dead bodies in the streets of Baghdad each morning after a night of savagery. Al-Qaida-linked fighters had flooded into the country and were inflaming the Sunni insurgency. Iran was deeply involved in arming, financing and encouraging Shiite radicals.

The proximate causes of that chaos were the lack of a national organization to keep order and an interim government to put an Iraqi face on political decision-making. Cheney deals with this in a single paragraph.

"There were also some things we failed to anticipate. Based on intelligence reports, we believed we would be able to rely on the Iraqi police to keep the peace and prove security. That turned out not to be true. The Iraqi police were among the least trusted, most infiltrated institutions in Iraqi society. We also thought that once we removed the top Baathists leaders from Saddam's government, we'd be able to get things up and running relatively quickly, but we discovered that many people were so accustomed to acting only on orders from the top that they were paralyzed without them."

Cheney says nothing about disbanding the military. He doesn't detail the wholesale banishment of Baath Party members — not just government figures — from positions of leadership and authority. Membership in the party was key to career advancement in Iraq, much as was Communist Party membership in the former Soviet Union. It did not necessarily prove political beliefs.

Without a viable military, the job of policing an alien culture fell to U.S. forces, trained to fight wars but not enforce civil order.

Without an interim government that had support from both Shiites and Sunni Muslims, the country was under the one-man rule of American L. Paul Bremer. He ran the occupation until June 2004 and then was involved in a long and destabilizing struggle to elect a government and write a constitution.

The Sunnis, the heart of the insurgency, felt sidetracked in the new power structure and were angry. While a minority of Iraq's population, they wielded power under Saddam. The Shiites majority had been brutalized by Saddam and wanted revenge.

Cheney deals with the crisis tangentially as he details the political back and forth when Bush, with his vice president's full backing, was deciding to send even more American forces into Iraq, beginning in early 2007.

Before that, the administration had been running a policy that was headed toward a reduction of U.S. troop strength in the midst of unimaginable violence, brutality and a near-civil war.

Once additional troops were decided upon, Bush put Gen. David Petraeus, the new CIA director, and his U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in charge.

In time the gamble paid off and The Associated Press was among the first American news organizations to report declining violence. But as many as 100,000, perhaps many more, Iraqis had already died and the death toll among American forces continues to rise. It now stands at 4,474.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Steven R. Hurst was bureau chief in Iraq for The Associated Press from 2006-to early 2008.