Cheney on Iraq: "We did exactly the right thing"

In a wide-ranging interview, the vice-president maintains Iraqi civilian deaths were worth it, talks up administration "successes" and says he doesn't believe his poll numbers.

By Alex Koppelman

Published January 15, 2009 12:00AM (EST)

As he prepares to leave office, Vice President Dick Cheney has been doing a series of exit interviews with various news outlets. Judging from a transcript released by the White House, it appears that the one he gave to PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," which airs Wednesday night, is the best of the bunch so far, and definitely worth watching.

Cheney's talk with the show covers a broad range of topics, at times becomes a little combative and includes some interesting -- and revealing -- responses from him. Below, some snippets from the transcript.

On mistakes he's made:

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I can think of places where I underestimated things. For example, when you talk about Iraq, the extent of which the Iraqi population had been beaten down by Saddam Hussein was greater than I anticipated. That is, we thought that the Iraqis would be able to bounce back fairly quickly, once Saddam was gone and their new government established, and step up to take major responsibilities for governing Iraq, building a military and so forth. And that took longer than I expected.

I think that what happened in Saddam's reign, as well as what happened back in '91, when after the Gulf War there was an uprising in Iraq that was brutally crushed by Saddam -- I think that eliminated a lot of the people that were potential leaders. If they had stuck their heads out they would have been chopped off. And if I were to look for one where there was a miscalculation on my part, I think I underestimated the difficulty of getting an Iraqi government stood up.

On whether the invasion was worth the human cost:

QUESTION: But Mr. Vice President, getting from there to here, 4,500 Americans have died, at least 100,000 Iraqis have died. Has it been worth that?



THE VICE PRESIDENT: Because I believed at the time what Saddam Hussein represented was, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, was a terror-sponsoring state so designated by the State Department. He was making payments to the families of suicide bombers. He provided a safe haven and sanctuary for Abu Nidal and other terrorist operations. He had produced and used weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents. He'd had a nuclear program in the past. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. And he did have a relationship with al Qaeda.

We've had this debate that keeps people trying to conflate those arguments. That's not to say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. It is to say as George Tenet, the CIA Director, testified in open session in the Senate, that there was a relationship there that went back 10 years. This was a terror-sponsoring state with access to weapons of mass destruction. And that's the greatest threat we faced in the aftermath of 9/11, that the next time we found terrorists in the middle of one of our cities, it wouldn't be 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters, it would be terrorists armed with a biological agent, or maybe even a nuclear device.

And so I think given the track record of Saddam Hussein, I think we did exactly the right thing. I think the country is better off for it today. I think it's been part of the effort, alongside Afghanistan, to liberate 50 million people and establish a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I think those are major, major accomplishments.

On assessments of the administration:

QUESTION: On a more general scope here, Mr. Vice President, what do you make of a current suggestion that you have been, in fact, the most powerful Vice President in history, but in one of the most failed presidencies in history?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't buy that.

QUESTION: You don't buy that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No. I think the argument that this is a failed presidency is just dead wrong. I think we'll hear that from some of our critics, but when I look back at what we've been able to do, we dealt with big issues, we didn't deal with school uniforms. We dealt with the fact that we brought down two of the worst regimes in the 20th century, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We were forced -- when we arrived, shortly after we arrived -- to have to deal with the global war on terror, which had not been managed properly before that. We ended up inheriting this situation, which has been very challenging, but we've been very successful at it. And when you look at what we've been able to do, both in terms of our activities overseas, as well as our operations that allowed us to block any further attack against the United States here at home, I think those are great successes. And I think there aren't very many administrations that can point to successes on that scale.

On his poll numbers:

QUESTION: Why do you believe that the public approval of, at least measured by the polls and other things, is so low? In your case, almost historically low.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Have you checked it recently?

QUESTION: I have. I have. In terms of history of polling -- it goes on 70 years -- the only Vice President who has ever had a lower approval rating was Dan Quayle...

THE VICE PRESIDENT: In terms of -- let's talk generally... We've tried very hard not to govern based on polls. That is to say we haven't tailored our policies in order to appeal to polls. We did start out -- I think one of the things that contributed to the amount of hostility that's out there in the body politic was what happened in the 2000 election, that it was as close as it was. And I think there were some people out there who questioned the legitimacy of our administration, given the way the Florida recount ultimately turned out. I think that contributed to it.

I think the decisions we've had to make on things like terrorist surveillance, like on interrogation of detainees, Patriot Act and so forth, the steps we've had to take to guard against another attack have been controversial and have been attacked robustly by our critics and our opponents.

But that's not why we came to office, Jim. We did win reelection, I think comfortably; not a landslide obviously. But we went out there and put what we were doing on the line in the way historically it's been tested in a democracy, and we got reelected. And we have been able, I think, again to achieve those objectives we set for ourselves. Now, over time, I expect that history will judge this administration with a fairly favorable eye...

QUESTION: So it doesn't trouble you at all to be leaving office next week with the overwhelming disapproval of a majority of the people as measured by the polls? That doesn't bother you personally?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't buy that. No, I don't --

QUESTION: You don't buy that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't buy that. And I find, when I get out and talk to people, that that's not the unanimous view as you would have -- the things that count for me in terms of the people I want to make certain are with us are, for example, the American military -- the young men and women who serve, the folks who go out and put their lives on the line to carry out the policies we've decided upon.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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