Cheney again walks Mideast high wire

He mobilized Arab allies against Saddam in 1990. Now for Act II.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was a typical Washington muggy summer afternoon - but Dick Cheney was hardly on a routine mission.

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.

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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.

Test of geopolitics

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.

"He asked very intelligent questions about all these things. It was a tremendous amount of material," says Lang.

"To be honest with you," he adds, "I would not have bet any of my own money that the Saudis would have allowed us into the country .... He must have been extremely persuasive."

Once at the Saudi royal family's summer palace, the Defense secretary clearly stated his message from President Bush. According to Bob Woodward's book "The Commanders," Cheney told King Fahd and the handful of royal family members and government officials that the US would commit a large enough force to adequately deter Hussein. But time was of the essence, he explained, because of the large number of troops to be transported from a great distance.

Charles Freeman, then US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says Cheney's smartest decision was to let General Schwarzkopf brief on the military details. The former ambassador, who was at the meeting, says that while Cheney handles meetings skillfully, it was "the presentation of a plan that involved the deployment of 220,000 American troops - a serious response versus a frivolous response - that was decisive."

A credible show of force, according to the diplomat from the region, is just as much an issue today. While the leaders of moderate Arab states are no lovers of Hussein, they worry that a bungled attempt to throw him out could result in the breakup of the country, civil war, and unrest that would spill across borders.

Those fears have prompted leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to publicly reject the idea of removing Hussein by force. But privately, the diplomat says, the "prevalent view" among Washington's friends and allies in the region is supportive of the American position - as long as the administration devises a credible plan that prevents Iraq from spinning out of control.

Another Mideast diplomat expects Cheney will come with the broad outlines of such a plan. "I don't believe he's going with a specific operation, with the tanks coming here and the F-16s going there," he says. "But he will tell the interlocutors on the Arab side 'this is something we want to do, this is something we're going to do ... and these are the sort of things we might expect from you when we do it.' "

Greatly complicating the discussion about Iraq, however, is the virtual war between Israel and the Palestinians. In a narrow sense, Cheney has been here before, as well. In the Gulf War, Israel also complicated things. Washington worried that, should Iraq attack Israel, the Jewish state would strike back in self-defense - or even take preemptive action - as it had done in other instances. Such action could blow apart the US's carefully constructed Arab coalition.

One of Cheney's responsibilities was managing the US-Israeli relationship on war issues. A secure communications line was set up between the Pentagon and the Israeli Defense Force headquarters in Tel Aviv to facilitate that task. Cheney used the line, nicknamed "hammer rick," to notify Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens at the start of the war.

Sure enough, Iraq Scud missiles slammed into Israel. Mr. Arens picked up hammer rick on his end. He wanted his US counterpart to clear airspace into Iraq so his planes could retaliate. According to the former Cheney aide, the US Defense secretary "promised to make Scud hunting a high priority. He was able to persuade Israel to hold back and let the coalition take care of that" - though Cheney got plenty of backup from the secretary of State and Mr. Bush.

The tough agenda

Former ambassador Freeman cautions that while Cheney may have the Gulf War to his credit, "people in the region will judge him not by what he did back then, but by more than a year in office with this Bush administration."

Arab leaders blame the US for not engaging enough in the Israeli peace process, and for unfairly siding with the Israelis. More than anything, says Freeman, Cheney needs to work on restoring "seriously damaged" ties with Arab states.

This is definitely part of the mission, but given the secrecy surrounding the trip, it may be hard to determine exactly what the vice president accomplishes. Less than a week before his scheduled departure, the vice president's office, citing security reasons, refused to confirm his itinerary.

But here, too, the mark of the old Cheney is visible. He ferociously guards against leaks. Four months before the launch of Desert Storm, Air Force Chief Michael Dugan - a four-star general - talked at length with reporters on a trip to and from Saudi Arabia. In Cheney's opinion, General Dugan had revealed far too much about the administration's operational strategy against Hussein.

After working through his options on a legal pad, Cheney felt he had no choice. He fired him.

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