MCLEAN, Va. — On the eve of the unveiling of the nation’s new Afghanistan policy, former Vice President Dick Cheney slammed President Barack Obama for projecting “weakness” to adversaries and warned that more workaday Afghans will side with the Taliban if they think the United States is heading for the exits.
In a 90-minute interview at his suburban Washington house, Cheney said the president’s “agonizing” about Afghanistan strategy “has consequences for your forces in the field.”
“I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” Cheney said.
“Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?”
Obama administration officials have complained ever since taking office that they face a series of unpalatable — if not impossible — national security decisions in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the Bush administration’s unwavering insistence on focusing on Iraq.
But Cheney rejected any suggestion that Obama had to decide on a new strategy for Afghanistan because the one employed by the previous administration failed.
Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. “I basically don’t,” he replied without elaborating.
Obama will announce a troop buildup in Afghanistan in a speech Tuesday at West Point, and he’s expected to send at least 30,000 more U.S. troops to the country. The White House also has said that Obama will outline a general time frame for the United States to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.
But Cheney said the average Afghan citizen “sees talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win.
“Those folks ... begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies,” Cheney said. “They’re worried the United States isn’t going to be there much longer and the bad guys are.”
During the interview, Cheney laced his concerns with a broader critique of Obama’s foreign and national security policy, saying Obama’s nuanced and at times cerebral approach projects “weakness” and that the president is looking “far more radical than I expected.”
“Here’s a guy without much experience, who campaigned against much of what we put in place ... and who now travels around the world apologizing,” Cheney said. “I think our adversaries — especially when that’s preceded by a deep bow ... — see that as a sign of weakness.”
Specifically, Cheney said the Justice Department decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in New York City is “great” for Al Qaeda.
“One of their top people will be given the opportunity — courtesy of the United States government and the Obama administration — to have a platform from which they can espouse this hateful ideology that they adhere to,” he said. “I think it’s likely to give encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.”
The former vice president is splitting his time among his houses in Virginia, in Wyoming and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with a place at each for working on his memoir, to be published in the spring of 2011. His eldest daughter, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, is collaborating on the writing and overseeing research.
During the campaign, Cheney recalled, he saw Obama as “sort of a mainline, traditional Democrat — liberal, from the liberal wing of the party.” But Cheney said he is increasingly persuaded by the notion that Obama “doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is a special nation, that we are the greatest, freest nation mankind has ever known.”
“When I see the way he operates, I am increasingly convinced that he’s not as committed to or as wedded to that concept as most of the presidents I’ve known, Republican or Democrat,” he said. “I am worried. And I find as I get out around the country, a lot of other people are worried, too.”
Cheney said his worries extend to Obama’s domestic agenda: “He obviously has a very robust agenda of change — health care system, cap and trade, redistribution of wealth. I rarely hear him talk about the private sector.”
Cheney charged that Obama’s plans for Afghanistan are based on political calculations by “a guy who campaigned from one end of the country to the other, saying Afghanistan was the good war ... so that he could come across as somebody who’s not against all wars.”
“Now, things have changed. Iraq’s going significantly better because of the decisions we made in the Bush administration — the surge and so forth,” the former vice president added. “And he’s having to deal, sort of up close and personal, with the Afghanistan situation. And it’s tough — it’s hard. ... Sometimes I have the feeling that they’re just figuring that out.”
Looking ahead to 2012, Cheney said the likely midterm congressional losses for Democrats next year “point in the direction of a very competitive situation in 2012 — a very respectable shot for the Republicans of taking back the presidency.”
“There’s a lot of churning and a lot of ferment out there in the party today, and that’s basically a healthy thing,” he said. “Our adversaries — our Democratic adversaries — like to be able to portray the Republican Party as a bunch of wingnuts — narrow based, always have some agenda that’s not attractive to the public. ... That’s easier for them, and more fun, than dealing with their own problems. And I think their problems are significant.”
Cheney said “it’s far too soon to be handicapping” his party’s presidential nominee. “We’ve got a lot of folks, I’m sure, who will want to pursue it. I haven’t committed and don’t expect to anytime soon,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of interesting people in the Republican Party.”
Cheney at first declined to make any comment about Sarah Palin, but finally said: “I like her, personally. ... She’s charming, engaging. She’s got as much right to be out there as anybody else. Will she be a candidate at some point? How would she do as a candidate? Those are all questions that only time will tell.”
And what does he think about the movement to draft him to seek the top job himself?
Cheney says he sees no such scenario. “Why would I want to do that?” he replied. “It’s been a hell of a tour. I’ve loved it. I have no aspirations for further office.”