MOSCOW — After taping a brief interview with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney during his recent visit to Moscow, a Soviet television journalist half-kiddingly asked his American guest if he was considering running for President.
Cheney demurred, but his host, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov, interjected: "If you run, we'll support you."
Pardon? The Soviet defense minister endorsing Dick Cheney for President? Cheney, the Administration's unrepentant hawk, the self-proclaimed hard-liner on the Soviet Union? Cheney, the Western warmonger Soviet leaders used to quote in counterpoint whenever someone suggested cutting the Soviet defense budget?
That such an exchange should even take place is a stunning measure of how far relations between the superpowers have progressed and how high Cheney's stock has risen. The 49-year-old former congressman from Wyoming has quietly but unambiguously staked out a high-profile role as the Bush Administration's warrior-diplomat.
He has firmly established his authority over the military services at the Pentagon, most recently by his brusque firing of Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan for revealing U.S. war plans in the Persian Gulf.
Now Cheney is beginning to play a part on the global stage.
Bush called upon Cheney--not Secretary of State James A. Baker III--to "ask" Saudi King Fahd if he would like 250,000 U.S. troops deployed to protect against further Iraqi aggression in the Middle East.
It was Cheney who sat down in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Kremlin office and confronted the Nobel Peace Prize winner on Moscow's continued high spending on military hardware. And Cheney broke the news earlier this year to the South Koreans and Japanese that the United States planned gradually to withdraw its security umbrella from the region.
"He's really come into his own," a senior Administration official said of the defense secretary, who arrived at the Pentagon 18 months ago with a reputation as a savvy conservative with no particular expertise on military matters. Cheney avoided military service in the 1960s because he was married with two children when his student deferment expired.
Since assuming the defense post in April, 1989, Cheney has impressed leaders around the globe and many in Washington with his fine political instincts and a forceful but understated manner. "He chooses his spots very carefully. He has shown that he can do foreign affairs, too," an Administration colleague said.
The Persian Gulf deployment has thrust Cheney to the forefront of an Administration that seems unable to focus on more than one domestic crisis and one foreign policy crisis at a time. Some in Washington see Baker's standing on the wane as the defense chief's star rises, particularly after revelations that State Department diplomats in Baghdad and Washington--shortly before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait--appeared to signal that the United States was unconcerned about the fate of Kuwait.
But Administration insiders say that Baker hasn't slipped; rather, Cheney has risen to nearly co-equal status with the secretary of state. The two remain close friends--they spent last weekend together fishing in Wyoming--and apart from each man's obvious competitive nature, they are not rivals for power.
A senior official who has worked closely with both men described Baker as thin-skinned and ambitious. Cheney, he said, has a thicker hide and just as much ambition--but he manages to hide it better than his friend at Foggy Bottom.
To be sure, Cheney's current enhanced stature derives mostly from two successful but limited military operations--last December's invasion of Panama and the rapid, massive buildup of forces in the Middle East. If American blood is shed in a protracted war in the Persian Gulf without a clear-cut U.S. victory, he could find himself out of favor, out of a job and certainly out of the running for president.
Cheney aides acknowledge that he is much more likely to suffer if the gulf operation backfires than are the other two chief architects of U.S. military policy in the region, White House National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Scowcroft, a retired Air Force three-star general, is seen in Washington as a quiet professional without Cheney's partisan ideological baggage. Powell's uniform gives him virtual immunity from political retribution, even though he designed the American force of a quarter of a million troops now sitting in the Saudi sands.
Like a bridge pier, the bulk of which is underwater, Cheney's visibility on the gulf crisis masks the far deeper effort he has put into assessing changes in the Soviet Union and their effect on U.S. defense spending and defense planning into the next century.