The image was not an edifying one: the president of the United States a horse, his vice president, the rider.
But that is the image Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used to describe the power relationship between U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in a recent interview with the National Journal.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to Biden's account, sometimes talks Bush into pursuing a more conciliatory foreign-policy line, as he has done with North Korea or the United Nations from time to time.
"Like with a horse, Powell is always able to lead Bush to the water. But just as he is about to put his head down, Cheney up in the saddle says, 'Un-uh,' and yanks up the reins before Bush can drink the water. That's my image of how it goes," Biden said.
That is also the image which is gaining currency in power circles in Washington. When it comes to foreign policy, Cheney is increasingly seen as holding the reins.
While the mainstream media continue to refer to Bush as the captain of his own foreign-policy ship, hints that Cheney a Republican right-winger surrounded by neo-conservatives, many with close ties to Israel's Likud Party is the dominant figure in Washington's diplomacy have become too plentiful to ignore.
The most stunning example was disclosed in a recent 'Washington Post' article that assessed Rice's performance as national security adviser. The authors reported that Bush had ordered Cabinet officials not to give any preferential treatment to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) as U.S. forces moved into Iraq last spring.
Imagine the shock felt by the State Department when, shortly after Bush gave the order, the Pentagon flew Chalabi and 600 of his armed followers into southern Iraq in early April "with the approval of the vice president."
Enforcing policy discipline, especially in a divided administration, is ordinarily the task of the national security adviser. But Rice, an academic whose substantive knowledge of foreign policy is largely confined to her expertise, the Soviet Union and Russia, has not been equal to the task.
Her failure in that regard, as well as Bush's own passivity and inexperience, is precisely what has enabled Cheney to dominate the policy process, particularly with respect to the Middle East where Cheney's views are almost entirely consistent with those of the neo-cons close to Likud and Sharon.
Even before Sep. 11, Cheney had endorsed Israel's selective assassination policy even as the State Department was denouncing it. One year later, Cheney told Israel's defence minister, albeit privately, that he thought Palestinian President Yasser Arafat "should be hanged."
That Cheney should assume such a dominant role is not surprising given the degree to which Bush depended on him during his presidential campaign and in the administration's early days. And the fact that Cheney, who was asked by Bush to recommend his running mate in 2000, chose himself suggested that he felt confident that Bush would give him extraordinary powers if he won.
Similarly, Cheney played a much more important role than Rice, despite Rice's much closer personal relationship with Bush, in the appointment of both cabinet and sub-cabinet national-security officials, beginning with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.
Not only did Cheney personally intervene to ensure that Powell's best friend, Richard Armitage, was denied the deputy defence secretary position, but he also played a key role in securing the post for Paul Wolfowitz.
Moreover, it was Cheney who insisted that ultra-unilateralist John Bolton be placed in a top State Department arms position, from which he has pursued policies that run counter to Powell's own preferences.
Cheney's own chief of staff and national security adviser, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a Washington lawyer and Wolfowitz protégé, is considered a far more skilled and experienced bureaucratic and political operator than Rice.
Moreover, his own national-security staff, the largest ever employed by a vice president, has largely been chosen for both their ideological affinity with their boss and proven Washington experience. "They play to win," said one State Department official.
With several of his political allies, including deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Middle East director Elliott Abrams, on Rice's larger but more diverse staff, Libby "is able to run circles around Condi," a former NSC official told IPS earlier this year.
Thus, Cheney played a key role in assigning responsibility for post-war reconstruction to the Pentagon, a major departure from past experience when the State Department was given the lead.
Similarly, Cheney backed the Pentagon's exclusion of State Department officials, including Tom Warrick, a highly regarded Iraq specialist who oversaw the mammoth 'Future of Iraq Project' that involved hundreds of Iraqi expatriates and other experts, in the post-war administration.
It was also Cheney and Libby whose frequent trips to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the run-up to the Iraq war played the decisive role in distorting the intelligence process, in part by pressing on CIA analysts questionable evidence supplied by the INC and Pentagon hawks under Rumsfeld, according to retired intelligence officers.
More recently, it was Cheney who led the effort to deny Powell the authority to negotiate a new U.N. Security Council resolution that could have reduced the Pentagon's control over the political transition in Iraq, even after the president had initially approved such a deal.
Even now, according to some sources, Cheney is actively trying to blunt Congressional pressure to reduce the Pentagon's control over Iraq policy and fire several senior Pentagon hawks, beginning with Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith, who are believed to have misled Congress about both the evidence used to justify the war and the post-war situation.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar and Biden, the committee's ranking Democrat, explicitly mentioned Cheney in what amounted to a bipartisan appeal on NBC's 'Meet the Press' television programme Oct. 12 for Bush to assert his control over foreign policy.
"I would say," Biden said, "Mr. President, take charge. Take charge. Let your secretary of defense, state, and your vice president know this is my policy, any one of you that divert from the policy is off the team."
Lugar, a staunch, albeit moderate Republican, said he agreed with Biden, adding, "The president has to be president. That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries."
The past month's announcements that Rice had hired Robert Blackwill, Bush's former ambassador to India and reputedly a skilled bureaucratic and Republican infighter himself, as a top deputy and that she is heading up a new, inter-agency Iraq Stabilisation Group appeared designed to create the appearance that she was at last taking the reins.
So far, however, there is little evidence that Cheney is prepared to dismount.
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since the well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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