Cheney's Enigmatic Influence

By David Ignatius
Friday, January 19, 2007; Page A19

After six years, it remains one of Washington's enduring mysteries: How does Vice President Cheney shape decisions in the tight inner circle of the Bush administration? There's a sense that Cheney's influence is on the rise again, at least with Iraq policy, but that's after many months in which his allies say his role was diminished.

To outside observers, Cheney has been the political equivalent of a black hole -- exerting a powerful but mostly invisible force on decisions. The office of the vice president has had a gravitational weight that sucked in other personalities and entire branches of the government without emitting light or heat that would explain the decision-making process.

During Bush's first term, the "OVP," as it's known in Washington, functioned as a kind of parallel national security staff. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a strong chief of staff, and he hired talented foreign policy experts -- Eric Edelman and then Victoria Nuland -- to act, in effect, as Cheney's national security advisers. During Bush's second term, that role was taken on by John Hannah, a former policy researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But insiders say that since Libby's departure in 2005, the OVP has had less of an impact on foreign policy.

"What has defined the OVP since Scooter left is listlessness," says one Cheney ally. "For 18 months, it was defined by its torpidity. That was deeply distressing" to Cheney's conservative supporters, who feared that Bush had become captive to overly cautious advice from his senior military commanders, Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey.

This month's change in Iraq policy, in which Bush turned away from the patient strategy his military commanders had advocated, may have marked a return of Cheney's influence. But insiders caution that it's a mistake to see Cheney as some kind of puppet master on Iraq policy and that the key decisions have been made by Bush himself.

The thrust of Cheney's views -- in urging the president to ignore politics and maintain a tough course on Iraq -- surfaced in an interview he gave last weekend to Chris Wallace of Fox News. Wallace noted that Iraq was a big issue in the November elections and that exit polls showed only 17 percent of voters supported sending in more troops. What followed was this remarkable exchange:

Wallace: "By taking the policy you have, haven't you, Mr. Vice President, ignored the express will of the American people in the November election?"

The vice president: "Well, Chris, this president, and I don't think any president worth his salt, can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls. The polls change day by day."

Wallace: "This was an election, sir."

The vice president: "Polls change day by day, week by week."

Those remarks capture what Cheney's friends say is his crucial contribution to internal decisions -- a conviction that much of the political debate in Washington is just noise and should be ignored in favor of the country's long-term interests.

"Over the years, he got tired of suffering fools," says one longtime Cheney friend. "He thinks it's all BS." This contempt for Washington developed when Cheney was a top White House aide in the Ford administration during the cacophony that followed Watergate, this friend says, and it ripened when he made enough money as chief executive of Halliburton that he didn't have to care what people in Washington thought. The danger is that in encouraging Bush to ignore polls and even elections, Cheney has helped set up a confrontation between Congress and the executive branch that could undermine any hope of achieving a bipartisan approach on Iraq.

While Cheney seems to have prevailed on Iraq, he appeared to suffer a defeat in this week's White House decision to submit the warrantless surveillance program to the oversight of the FISA court. Many administration lawyers urged that course over the past several years, but it was strongly resisted by Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, who argued that the president had inherent authority to authorize the program under his war-making powers. "Addington clearly lost this round," says one official who met with him about the National Security Agency program.

The mystery of how Cheney operates may finally be clarified in the coming trial of Libby. The vice president will be called to testify on behalf of his former chief of staff, whom he described to Wallace last week as "one of the finest individuals I've ever known." That was pure Cheney -- the stand-up guy from Wyoming.

Cheney's testimony, in person or by affidavit, about the use of classified information will go to the heart of the Cheney puzzle: How does the most important but elusive presidential adviser in modern history use his power behind the scenes?