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Cheney Counterattacks War's Critics

As part of a stepped-up effort to address public concerns over troubles in Iraq, the vice president defends the use of preemptive force.

October 11, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney, who often plays the role of foreign policy philosopher for the president, accused the administration's critics Friday of failing to come to terms with the stark choices of the post-Sept. 11 world.

"There is no containing terrorists who will commit suicide for the purposes of mass slaughter," Cheney said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "There is also no containing a terror state that secretly passes along deadly weapons to a terrorist network. There is only one way to protect ourselves against catastrophic terrorist violence -- and that is to destroy the terrorists before they can launch further attacks against the United States."

Cheney's address was the third in three days by top administration officials including President Bush, who has launched a new communications effort to counteract growing public dismay over guerrilla attacks and other troubles in occupied Iraq.

However, it was the first of the three speeches to directly address criticism of the administration -- that it was too hasty to resort to force, failed to gain international approval through the United Nations and misrepresented the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs.

Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, praised the vice president for dropping the administration's traditional aversion to engaging its critics.

"You cannot assert that the press is out to sell all the bad news and not get out there and confront them," Pletka said. "If you cede the field to your critics, they prevail."

Cheney called the current debate over national security "the most consequential since the early days of the Cold War," when the United States adopted a policy of containment of the Soviet Union.

"Sometimes history presents clear and stark choices," he said. "We have come to such a moment."

One of those choices, Cheney said, is whether to adopt a passive or an offensive strategy to counteract terrorism.

"Some claim we should not have acted because the threat from Saddam Hussein was not imminent," Cheney said. "It would be reckless in the extreme to rule out action and save our worries until the day they strike."

He also said critics are too concerned about the danger of stirring up more hostility to the United States: "Weakness and drift and vacillation in the face of danger invite attacks. Strength and resolve and decisive action defeat attacks before they can arrive on our soil."

Cheney argued against those who say the United States should have sought international approval before going to war, saying that would mean "the mere objection of even one foreign government would be sufficient to prevent us from acting."

"It is a prescription for perpetual disunity and obstructionism," the vice president continued. "In practice, it would prevent our own country from acting with friends and allies, even in the most urgent circumstance."

Cheney took issue with those who believe the administration exaggerated the danger from Iraq's weapons programs, and who assert that no evidence of weapons of mass destruction has been found.

The vice president, as other officials have done in recent days, said that an interim report released last week by weapons inspector David Kay vindicates the administration's statements on Iraqi weapons. He quoted sections from the Kay report, including one saying the inspectors "have discovered dozens of [weapons]-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations."

Cheney concluded by saying that the critics, if they had prevailed in the prewar debate, would have left Iraq in the hands of a brutal regime.

"If Saddam Hussein were in power today, there would still be active terror camps in Iraq, the regime would still be allowing terrorist leaders into the country, and this ally of terrorists would still have a hidden biological weapons program capable of producing deadly agents on short notice," Cheney said.

Pletka, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq, described the speech as an important restatement of the administration's policy, putting the war and reconstruction effort into clear context.

"The more distance we get from 9/11, the less real it seems to people," Pletka said. "That's why having a broader context in which you articulate your foreign policy is enormously important."

But James M. Lindsay, an administration critic who is director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the speech set up false dualities. For instance, he said, Cheney asserted that the choices facing the administration were whether to deter terrorists or fight them.

"Certainly, deterrence doesn't work with terrorists," Lindsay said. "There has never been a dispute about that. What you need to ask is: What is the best way to fight terrorism?"

Cheney's decision to outline stark but false choices, Lindsay said, was "an extremely effective rhetorical device. They carry listeners from assertions that seem indisputable to conclusions that seem irrefutable. Only on closer inspection, they don't hold water."

Lindsay also criticized Cheney for using suggestive language in the speech that implied a link between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein, even though Bush had said in a September speech that the administration has no proof of such a link.

"He's a master of implication," Lindsay said. "His comments have always been crafted to suggest a meaningful link between the two."

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