Cheney again walks Mideast high wire
He mobilized Arab allies against Saddam in 1990. Now for Act II.
It was a typical Washington muggy summer afternoon - but Dick Cheney was hardly on a routine mission.Skip to next paragraph
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On Sunday, Aug. 5, 1990, then-Defense Secretary Cheney, Central Command chief Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and a handful of others prepared for takeoff at Andrews Air Force Base. Iraq had invaded Kuwait three days before. Under orders from then-President George H. W. Bush, Mr. Cheney and his group were flying to Saudi Arabia, intent on persuading Saudi leader King Fahd to accept a massive deployment of American troops to his desert kingdom.
The turmoil of the times was reflected in the fact that even as they rolled down the tarmac the US leaders were not sure whether they would be able to overcome the Saudis' traditional reluctance to allow foreign troops on their soil.
But in the past, thousands of Iraqi troops had not been massed on the Saudi border like a raised hammer. Blunt presentations from Cheney and Schwarzkopf - plus, reportedly, satellite imagery of the Iraqi buildup - convinced Fahd to accept a coalition force that eventually won the Gulf War.
Fast forward 12 years. Dick Cheney, now vice president, is setting off on another crucial mission to the Mideast.
As in 1990, this trip is fraught with tension and uncertainty. Cheney will have to deal with the tough issues of a possible effort to topple Saddam Hussein, as well as the virtual war between Israel and the Palestinians, the general fight against terrorism, and strained relations between the US and moderate Arab states.
But if any Bush administration official has the experience and standing in the region to deal with these problems, it is likely Cheney. Many leaders in the region respect him as a forthright official with close ties to the president, and as a former energy executive who served as CEO of Halliburton, the largest oil services firm in the world.
"Cheney has the credibility as an oil person, as a former secretary of Defense and as an architect of victories in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. He's not an ordinary vice president," says Raymond Tanter, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Vice," as Bush has called him, first encountered the Mideast morass as chief of staff in the Ford Administration.
After Wyoming elected him to Congress as its sole representative in 1978, Cheney became a member of the House Intelligence Committee, where the Mideast was no small factor. In 1987, he served as ranking minority member of the House committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal.
A year later, Bush senior plucked him from his job as House minority whip to run the Pentagon, where the military came to regard him as a hard-nosed administrator who couldn't easily be pushed around.
Cheney didn't cut off his old Desert Storm connections when he joined Halliburton. Five months after he was named CEO, he toured the Gulf states in a company jet with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former President Bush. The trio dined with members of the region's ruling families.
Mr. Tanter explains, however, that it is geopolitics, more than economics, that underlie this trip. During the Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker said there were three reasons to fight Mr. Hussein: oil, oil, oil. Today, says Tanter, it's state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Either way, Cheney's personal connections, his credibility, and certainly his experience with Desert Shield and Desert Storm will help him. "He has many friends in these countries," says one diplomat.
When asked their views of the vice president, diplomats like this one typically name two standout qualities - his straightforward approach and his clout.
Everyone knows that a visit from Cheney is tantamount to a visit from the US president himself, the diplomat notes. He says his country takes this visit more seriously than it did previous tours by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Now a bigger gun is coming and expectations have risen," the diplomat says.
There is no Kissinger-like subtlety to Cheney diplomacy. No nuance or slippery, vague notions. He simply masters the issues, presents them clearly, and then keeps his word, say those who have worked with him. "He is thought of in the Islamic world as being one of those guys who takes a very tough-minded approach to American interests and is not easily convinced by glib talk and facile assurances," says Pat Lang, the former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who schooled Cheney on Iraq at the Pentagon.
Mr. Lang, an Arabic-speaker who had been studying Iraqi troop movements from satellite photographs, remembers briefing the defense secretary hours before he left on his 1990 Saudi mission. As Lang recalls, the briefing was complex.