President Bush would have ordered an invasion of Iraq even if the CIA had told him that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.
In the build-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Bush and other administration leaders argued that Saddam should be removed from power because he had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was actively seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
Subsequent investigations concluded that he did not have such weapons, and in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cheney acknowledged that, “clearly, the intelligence that said he did was wrong.”
Asked by “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert whether the United States would have gone ahead with the invasion anyway if the CIA had reported that Saddam did not, in fact, have such weapons, Cheney said yes.
“He’d done it before,” Cheney said. “He had produced chemical weapons before and used them. He had produced biological weapons. He had a robust nuclear program in ’91.”
The U.S. invasion “was the right thing to do, and if we had to do it again, we would do exactly the same thing,” he said.
U.S. will being tested
Cheney also said he was wrong when he said shortly before the invasion that U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators.” Instead, more than three years later, violent resistance to the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad continues, and more than 2,600 U.S. service members have been killed.
“No doubt, we did not anticipate that the insurgency would last this long,” Cheney said. The United States must stay the course, however, because while the situation is “difficult,” it is significantly better, he said.
Cheney acknowledged opinion polls that show that a majority of the U.S. public believes Iraq is a more dangerous threat than it was before U.S. forces invaded.
“The people obviously are frustrated because of the difficulty, because of the cost and the casualties, but you cannot look at Iraq in isolation,” he said. “You have to look at it within the context of the broader global war on terror. ... If Saddam Hussein were still in power, we would be in a vastly worse position.”
Should the United States pull out of Iraq, Cheney said, the governments of Iraq and Pakistan, which he said had staked their futures on the U.S. commitment, would conclude that “the United States hasn’t got the stomach for the fight. Bin Laden’s right, al-Qaida’s right, the United States has lost its will and will not complete the mission.”
U.S. faces long haul in Afghanistan
In neighboring Afghanistan, meanwhile, a U.S.-backed government is facing its worst surge of violence in the nearly five years since the United States booted out the militant Islamic Taliban government, and Cheney said Western forces would likely be fighting a nationwide insurgency for “some considerable period of time.”
Appearing on “Meet the Press” on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Cheney similarly defended the U.S. military performance in Afghanistan, contending that “we are much better off today because Afghanistan is not the safe haven for terrorism that it was five years ago.”
Insurgent leaders there are proving unexpectedly dangerous because they have changed their tactics, abandoning direct attacks on military units in favor of a guerrilla-style hit-and-run approach, he said.
The new approach makes it vital that the American public remain committed to the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cheney said, because the insurgents are willing to absorb heavy losses in a long battle of attrition.
“They can’t beat us in a stand-up fight, but they’re also convinced they can break our will,” Cheney said.
He acknowledged that U.S. and Afghan forces, now joined by NATO forces, were “still in the fight for Afghanistan” almost five years after U.S. forces invaded to remove the Taliban for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
NATO said Sunday that 94 militants were killed in the Panjwayi and neighboring Zhari districts overnight, raising the toll from a counterinsurgency operation now in its ninth day past 420. Six NATO soldiers and 14 members of the British crew of a reconnaissance plane have also died.
Meanwhile, in eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bombing killed three people Sunday, including the governor of Paktia province, and wounded three others, police said.
The U.S. military said Saturday that a suicide bombing cell targeting foreign troops was operating in the capital, Kabul. The warning came two days after a car bomber rammed into a U.S. army convoy near the U.S. Embassy, killing 16 people, the worst such attack in the capital.
In the hour-long interview, Cheney also:
- Said he still disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in June that the administration overstepped its authority in holding suspected terrorists without trials or the protections of the Geneva Conventions. He would not discuss specific treatment of detainees but said information gleaned from interrogations “helped us prevent attacks against the United States.”
- Refused to criticize plans by Republicans to spend millions off dollars on negative campaign ads against Democrats. “I hope our guys have good, hard-hitting advertisements. Certainly, the opposition does,” he said. He predicted that Republicans would keep control of both House and the Senate.
- Called his former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who is awaiting trial in the CIA leak case, “a good man ... entitled to a presumption of innocence.” Cheney would not comment on what his own role in that case may have been, saying he was likely to be called as a witness in Libby’s trial.
- Said that he had not been hunting since a Feb. 11 hunting trip in Texas when he accidentally shot lawyer Harry Whittington in the torso, neck and face but that he intended to go hunting again. “I don’t know that you ever get over it,” he said. “Fortunately, Harry is doing very well.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.