Cheney in Wonderland

Vice President Dick Cheney has long acted as though the best defense is a good offense, no matter what the damage to truth or common sense. It was Cheney who CIA analysts say personally pressured them to deliver worst-case estimates about Iraqi capabilities and then declared in July that “it would have been irresponsible in the extreme” not to have acted on those very CIA estimates. Even so, Cheney, in commenting about Iraq on Sunday during a rare television appearance, broke new ground. He not only defended the Bush administration’s record in rebuilding Iraq but he upheld sweeping, unproven claims about Saddam Hussein’s connections to terrorism.

On Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney announced to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” and in mid-March he declared that U.S. troops would be “greeted as liberators.” Since then, no weapons of mass destruction have been found and American troops face up to 17 attacks a day. Administration officials like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, have retreated from many of their prewar assertions. Rumsfeld declared in a March 30 interview about weapons of mass destruction that “they’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat,” but on May 27, before the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, “I don’t know the answer.” Similarly, Wolfowitz was humbled before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) confronted him over his declaration in March that Iraqi oil would allow economic recovery to finance itself. The best that Wolfowitz could do was: “as large as these costs are, they’re still small compared to just the economic price that the attacks of Sept. 11 inflicted. ... “

Cheney seems stuck in a time warp. He asserted “major success, major progress” in Iraq, and that Americans were being welcomed as “liberators.” He claimed that the Iraqi government “had a relationship with Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ‘90s,” a more sweeping time frame than others in the administration have ventured. Those in the administration who seek help from Europe and elsewhere can only hope that Cheney’s speech is seen as something for domestic consumption, a pep talk for the public that is footing the bill.

But voters can be touchy. The longer that top officials peddle rosy scenarios, the more resentful the audience will be when the pep talks no longer work.