George W. Bush tried to put a happy face last night on the political predicament in which the Bush administration now finds itself. Dick Cheney? That's not really his style. In a remarkably testy interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer this morning, the vice president defended the war in Iraq and said that the "biggest threat right now" is that "all of the debate over whether or not we ought to stay in Iraq" will cause the U.S. to leave too soon.
When Cheney said that the United States would be in a "terrible situation" today if Saddam Hussein were still in power, Blitzer interrupted to say that "there is a terrible situation" in Iraq anyway. Cheney shot back: "No, there is not. There is not. There's problems, ongoing problems, but we have, in fact, accomplished our objectives of getting rid of the old regime, and there is a new regime in place that's been there for less than a year, far too soon for you guys to write them off. They have got a democratically written constitution, first ever in that part of the world. They've had three national elections. So there's been a lot of success."
Cheney was visibly angry as he spoke, and the full transcript of the interview -- distributed by the White House a short while ago -- suggests that the discussion grew more heated from there.
Some of the highlights:
Blitzer: Here's what Jim Webb, senator from Virginia, said in his Democratic response last night. He said: "The president took us into the war recklessly. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable and predicted disarray that has followed." And it's not just Jim Webb, it's some of your good Republican friends in the Senate and the House, are now seriously questioning your credibility because of the blunders, of the failures ...
Cheney: Wolf, Wolf, I simply don't accept the premise of your question. I just think it's hogwash.
Blitzer: What if the Senate passes a resolution saying [that sending more troops] is not a good idea. Will that stop you?
Cheney: It won't stop us, and it would be, I think, detrimental from the standpoint of the troops, as Gen. Petraeus said yesterday. He was asked by Joe Lieberman, among others, in his testimony, about this notion that somehow the Senate could vote overwhelmingly for him, send him on his new assignment, and then pass a resolution at the same time and say, but we don't agree with the mission you've been given.
Blitzer: So you're moving forward no matter what the consequences?
Cheney: We are moving forward. We are moving forward. The Congress has control over the purse strings. They have the right, obviously, if they want, to cut off funding. But in terms of this effort, the president has made his decision. We've consulted extensively with them. We'll continue to consult with the Congress. But the fact of the matter is, we need to get the job done. I think General Petraeus can do it. I think our troops can do it. And I think it's far too soon for the talking heads on television to conclude that it's impossible to do, it's not going to work, it can't possibly succeed.
Blitzer: Here's the problem that you have -- the administration -- credibility in Congress with the American public, because of the mistakes, because of the previous statements, the "last throes," the comment you made a year-and-a-half ago, the insurgency was in its "last throes." How do you build up that credibility, because so many of these Democrats, and a lot of Republicans now, are saying they don't believe you anymore?
Cheney: Well, Wolf, if the history books were written by people who have -- are so eager to write off this effort, to declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago. Bottom line is that we've had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes. It is hard. It is difficult. It's one of the toughest things any president has to do. It's easy to stick your finger in the air and figure out which way the winds are blowing and then try to get in front of the herd. This president doesn't work that way. He also -- be very clear in terms of providing leadership going forward for what we need to do in Iraq. Now, fact is, this is a vitally important piece of business. It needs to be done. The consequences of our not completing the task are enormous. Just think for a minute -- and think for a minute, Wolf, in terms of what policy is being suggested here. What you're recommending, or at least what you seem to believe the right course is, is to bail out --
Blitzer: I'm just asking questions.
Cheney: No, you're not asking questions.
Blitzer: Yes, I am. I'm just asking --
Cheney: ... implicit in what the critics are suggesting, I think, is an obligation to say, "Well, here's what we need to do, or we're not going to do anything else. We're going to accept defeat." Defeat is not an answer. We can, in fact, prevail here, and we need to prevail. And the consequences of not doing so are enormous.
Blitzer asked Cheney if the administration is "ready to go to war" to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Cheney's response: "Come on now, Wolf. You know I'm not going to speculate on something like that."
What does Cheney make of Scooter Libby's charge that he was set up by the White House? "I'm not going to discuss it."
Would Hillary Clinton make a good president? "No." Why not? "Because she's a Democrat. I don't agree with her philosophically and from a policy standpoint."
Cheney said that he won't be the next president of the United States -- we're pretty sure he's right about that one -- but he refused to speculate about who might be. Blitzer noted that one would-be Republican candidate, John McCain, said the other day that Bush had been badly served on Iraq by both his vice president and the secretary of defense.
Cheney's initial response: "So?"