How Cheney took control of Bush's foreign policy

The new veep installed crony Don Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, and would've won Paul Wolfowitz the top post at CIA -- if not for Wolfowitz's zipper problem.

Published November 9, 2007 11:48AM (EST)

Much as he loathed Colin Powell, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney realized that the immensely popular general -- the most trusted man in America -- was essential to the political perception of the incoming Bush administration's foreign policy decisions. As former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich put it, "If you're George Bush, and the biggest weakness you have is foreign policy, and you can have Cheney on one flank and Powell on the other, it virtually eliminated the competence issue."

As a result, on December 16, 2000, three days after Al Gore conceded defeat, Colin Powell was flown to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where the president-elect announced his first cabinet appointment: Colin Powell as secretary of state. "He is a tower of strength and common sense," said Bush. "You find somebody like that, you have to hang on to them. I have found such a man."

Tears filled Bush's eyes. "I so admire Colin Powell," he later explained. "I love his story."

Unlike other designated cabinet appointees, Powell had not been vetted by Cheney or other campaign officials. Nor, according to "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," Karen DeYoung's comprehensive biography of him, was Powell even asked any serious foreign policy questions. Such discussions were not necessary. According to a former Pentagon official who had worked with Cheney during the first Gulf War, "Cheney's distrust and dislike for Mr. Powell were unbounded." In other words, Powell was only there for show. Cheney immediately took measures to undermine him. The chess game began.

At the Crawford press conference on December 16, Powell was dazzling -- too dazzling for his own good. As he proceeded with his lengthy discourse about the state of the world, Bush's admiring expression gradually turned to one of sour irritation. Afterward, Richard Armitage, Powell's close friend and longtime colleague, told the secretary of state-designate that he had been so comfortable in front of the cameras compared to the president-elect, that it was somewhat disturbing. "It's about domination," Armitage advised Powell. "Be careful in appearances with the president."

Armitage wasn't the only one to notice. "Powell seemed to dominate the President-elect ... both physically and in the confidence he projected," reported the Washington Post. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman concluded that Powell "so towered over the president-elect, who let him answer every question on foreign policy, that it was impossible to imagine Mr. Bush ever challenging or overruling Mr. Powell on any issue."

None of this was lost on Cheney. Initially, Bush and he had decided that the new secretary of defense would be former Indiana senator Dan Coats, a Christian fundamentalist on the Senate Armed Services Committee who had won over the Christian Right thanks to his undiluted antipathy toward gays in the military. But now it was abundantly clear to Cheney that Coats would be no match for Powell. When Coats added that he did not consider missile defense an urgent priority, Bush and Cheney dumped him immediately.

Meanwhile, Bush proceeded to pick other key cabinet officials. On December 22, he announced that his attorney general would be John Ashcroft, who had just been defeated in a bid for reelection as senator from Missouri. Ashcroft, who had preached at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, was a member of the Assemblies of God church, the denomination of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Elvis Presley, which was known for charismatic practices such as faith healing and speaking in tongues.

As secretary of commerce, Bush picked Don Evans, an evangelical oil man friend from Texas who had introduced Bush to the Community Bible Studies program in Midland. As chief White House speechwriter, Bush picked Michael Gerson, a graduate of Wheaton College, the so-called Harvard of evangelical colleges. These were the very people whom Neil Bush had scorned as "cockroaches" issuing "from the baseboards of the Bible-belt," and whom Bush 41 had derided as the "extra-chromosome set."

As the cabinet began to take shape in late December, Colin Powell still presented the biggest potential obstacle to the ambitions of Cheney and the neocons. There was less than a month before the inauguration. Time was running out. They had to find a way to neutralize him.

According to the former Pentagon official, Cheney was convinced that even though Powell's presence was essential to the Bush administration, he "would have to be cornered bureaucratically and repeatedly reminded (even in ways involving public humiliation) that foreign policy was not something over which he presided." To accomplish that task, the official continued, Cheney "recruited Donald Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives to hammer Secretary of State Powell bureaucratically while Mr. Cheney took upon himself the task of managing the President of the United States."

On December 28, Donald Rumsfeld met Bush in his temporary headquarters in the Madison Hotel in Washington. To Washington cognoscenti, to Bush insiders, the idea that Rumsfeld might be invited to join a Bush administration was stunning. Rumsfeld's enmity with Bush 41 included attempts to keep Bush off the Republican ticket in 1976 and 1980 and the Team B battle with Bush's CIA. Rumsfeld openly made fun of Bush at Chicago dinner parties. And when Bob Dole challenged Bush 41 for the presidential nomination in 1988, Rumsfeld had been on Dole's team. At the time, George W. Bush was the enforcer on his father's campaign. "Without question, [George W.] would have known about his father's problems with Rumsfeld," said Pete Teeley, former press secretary to Bush 41. "Everybody knew."

"Real bitterness there," said another friend of Bush 41. "Makes you wonder what was going through Bush 43's mind when he made him secretary of defense."

James Baker even interceded. According to Robert Draper's "Dead Certain," he told the president-elect, "All I'm going to say is, you know what he did to your daddy." But Bush didn't listen. After all, Rumsfeld's success came from being a great courtier. Fourteen years older than his patron, vastly more experienced, Rumsfeld reportedly played to Bush's insecurity about his lack of experience, and reassured him that he was fit for command. That reassurance became crucial to their relationship over the next six years.

Rumsfeld's relationship with Cheney had cooled somewhat since he and his protégé had been in the Ford White House. In 1986, Rumsfeld had made a futile stab at getting the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, and had pleaded with Cheney, unsuccessfully, for his support. When George H.W. Bush won the presidency, Cheney ultimately became secretary of defense but Rumsfeld was left out in the cold.

Now that they were reunited, Cheney had a more powerful role in their partnership than before. In contrast to President-elect Bush, who had little knowledge of Washington, the two men had an unsurpassed mastery of the intricacies of the federal bureaucracy, thanks to three decades of shared experience at the highest levels of the executive branch. They knew the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress -- inside and out. They knew how to make these institutions turn on a dime, when to accelerate and when to put on the brakes. Less neocon ideologues than authoritarian nationalists, they believed in an executive branch so powerful -- "the imperial presidency," "the unitary executive" -- that the constitutionally mandated system of checks and balances was all but negated. It was a philosophy that many neocons shared.

But in order to realize his ambitions, Cheney knew his team needed control of the entire national security apparatus. By this time, Paul Wolfowitz, a Cheney hand whose name had been widely bandied about as a potential secretary of defense, was now being touted as a possible pick to replace George Tenet as the next CIA director. If that happened, Cheney would have an ideal team in place.

Then dean of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University -- a position he had held for seven years -- Wolfowitz, always intent upon proving he was the smartest guy in the room, had a cerebral style that didn't mix particularly well with Bush's frat-boy disposition. In Dick Cheney, however, he had a patron who was the most powerful voice in the new administration next to the president himself. And, during his trips to Austin, Wolfowitz had played a key role in formulating an intellectual framework through which the president-elect could craft foreign policy.

There was another problem, however, that threatened Wolfowitz's position in the new administration. His marriage was on the rocks. Worse, according to an article in the Daily Mail (London) by Sharon Churcher and Annette Witheridge, Wolfowitz was allegedly having an affair with a staffer at the School of Advanced International Studies. Clare Wolfowitz, his wife of more than thirty years and mother of his three children, was said to be so angry that she was taking actions that might jeopardize his career.

The episode at SAIS was not the only alleged indiscretion reported about Wolfowitz. The fifty-seven-year-old Pentagon veteran had also become smitten with Shaha Ali Riza, a secular Muslim then in her forties, who had made her way through Washington's neocon network while working at the Free Iraq Foundation, a group that supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s, and the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded foundation that makes grants to promote democracy throughout the world. Born in Libya and raised in Saudi Arabia, Riza had been educated at the London School of Economics and Oxford, and had obtained British citizenship. According to the London Sunday Times, Riza shared "Wolfowitz's passion for spreading democracy in the Arab world" and "is said to have reinforced his determination to remove Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime."

According to a former State Department official, Wolfowitz was quite taken with the notion that he, a secular Jew, was dating a Muslim. Their relationship put a heady, modern, and romantic face on the entire neocon project of democratizing the Middle East. As the Bush-Cheney team prepared to take office, Wolfowitz and Riza, not his wife Clare, took in the neocon social circuit together. Riza was known to Cheney. She moved in the same circles with and was admired by Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile Wolfowitz backed as a successor to Saddam. "Shaha was the embodiment of the outcome of the modern Arab political system as the neocons saw it," said the State Department source. "She was the personification of the outcome they hoped for in Iraq. She was not theoretical. She was not in a burka. She was a modern Arab feminist."

Wolfowitz's critics who knew about the affair delighted in referring to Shaha Riza as "his neoconcubine." But more significant than the prurient aspects of his alleged dalliances were the questions of national security they might raise. After all, federal officials have been denied national security clearances not because of extramarital activities but because of the possibility of blackmail stemming from their nondisclosure. And if one of the women in question was a foreign national -- as was Shaha Ali Riza -- that raised additional serious issues about security clearances.

What hung in the balance was not merely the marriage of Paul and Clare Wolfowitz -- or the sales of British tabloid newspapers. Nor was it just whether or not Paul Wolfowitz would reach the apex of his career by becoming director of the CIA. Unwittingly, Clare Wolfowitz may have put at risk Dick Cheney's dreams of the entire neocon project to remake the Middle East. After all, if Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons were to outflank centrists such as Colin Powell, it was essential that they control America's intelligence apparatus. As Cheney saw it, Wolfowitz was just the man for the job. Cheney was getting all his ducks in a row -- or at least trying to.

Meanwhile, just as Wolfowitz's name was being bandied about for the top job at Langley, George Tenet, the Clinton appointee who still served as CIA director, got called to a private meeting with President-elect Bush. Tenet had hoped to make it at least partway through the next administration, but the papers had been full of speculation about who might succeed him. "I guess this is the end," Tenet told a colleague as he went to meet the next president.

When Tenet returned, however, he was pleasantly surprised. "[Bush] wants me to stay until he can find someone better," he said. It was not until six years later that The Nelson Report, a highly regarded newsletter for Washington foreign policy insiders, finally reported why Tenet had not been replaced by Wolfowitz. "A certain Ms. Riza was even then Wolfowitz's true love," the newsletter said. "The problem for the CIA wasn't just that she was a foreign national, although that was and is today an issue for anyone interested in CIA employment. The problem was that Wolfowitz was married to someone else, and that someone was really angry about it, and she found a way to bring her complaint directly to the President.

"So when we, with our characteristic innocence, put Wolfowitz on our short-list for CIA, we were instantly told, by a very, very, very senior Republican foreign policy operative, 'I don't think so.' It was then gently explained why, purely on background, of course."

More specifically, the Daily Mail, citing a Bush administration source, reported that Clare Wolfowitz was so incensed by her husband's sexual behavior that she wrote Bush a letter suggesting that because of his infidelity her husband posed a potential national security risk. According to a memo by the former State Department official on the Washington Note website, Clare's letter "detailed her husband's extramarital affairs at SAIS and with Shaha Ali Riza. ... Clare pointed out that her husband had a sexual relationship with a non-American citizen and that he was seeking to keep these relationships 'non-disclosed.'"

Wolfowitz was now damaged goods. If Cheney and the neocons were to have control over the national security apparatus, it would not come from the CIA. They would have to turn to Plan B and find another way to take charge of America's multibillion-dollar intelligence machine.

By Craig Unger

Craig Unger is the author of 'Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power' (Scribner, September 2012). He is also a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, and wrote the New York Times bestseller, 'House of Bush, House of Saud.' For more about Boss Rove, and to buy the book, go to

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