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Cheney: Iraq pullout would 'validate and encourage the terrorists '

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Withdrawal from Iraq "would be devastating from the standpoint of the global war on terror," Cheney said.

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Vice President Dick Cheney sat down Thursday morning with CNN's John King.

They discussed whether the United States must remain in Iraq, the threat posed by a possible missile test by North Korea, the Scooter Libby trial, same-sex marriage and the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program.

Note: This interview was conducted before the Senate voted to reject two Democratic amendments to either set a July 2007 deadline for a withdrawal from Iraq or required the pullout to begin in 2006 but set no timetable for a complete withdrawal. (Complete story)

The Senate debate on Iraq

KING: The Democrats will put on the floor of the Senate today a proposal. They don't have the votes, but they say this administration's policy in Iraq has failed, and the leading Democratic proposal would say let's have a partial withdrawal -- they call it a redeployment -- and then require the administration to put forward a plan. Now, they say this is not cut and run, it's not retreat. But they say three years and three months later, it is time for the administration to tell the Iraqi government: You cannot have this indefinite American security blanket. You need to do a better job of preparing your own people to take over security. What's wrong with that?

CHENEY: Well, it's wrong in many respects, John. First of all, they're wrong; we're making significant progress. We've had major success on the political front in terms of three national elections last year by the Iraqis. They've stood up a brand new government under a new constitution for the first time ever. We've got a quarter of a million Iraqis now in uniform, equipped, trained, in the fight. So there has been significant progress made with respect to what's going on in Iraq.

What the Democrats are suggesting, basically, about a withdrawal -- you can call it redeployment, whatever you want to call it. Basically, it in effect validates the terrorists' strategy. You've got to remember that the Osama bin Laden-types, the al Qaeda-types, the Zarqawi-types that have been active in Iraq are betting that ultimately they can break the United States' will. There's no way they can defeat us militarily. Their whole strategy, if you look at what bin Laden's been saying for 10 years, is they believe they can, in fact, force us to quit, that ultimately we'll get tired of the fight, that we don't have the stomach for a long, tough battle and that we'll pack it in and go home.

If we were to do that it would be devastating from the standpoint of the global war on terror. It would affect what happens in Afghanistan. It would make it difficult for us to persuade the Iranians to give up their aspirations for nuclear weapons. It would threaten the stability of regimes like Musharraf in Pakistan and the Saudis in Saudi Arabia. It is absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point. It would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to --

KING: You say -- excuse me for interrupting -- you say validate and encourage the terrorists. The Democrats say they're tired of validating what they view as a failed policy. And as you know, some Democrats want to go even further -- Senator Kerry wants to have a complete withdrawal within a year or so. Jack Murtha, an old friend of yours with whom you have sparred recently in the House, he says, look, when President Reagan realized the policy in Beirut was failing, he withdrew the troops. Call it cut and run, if you will. When President Clinton realized the policy in Somalia was failing, he withdrew the troops. Again, some might say cut and run.

He says this war is costing $8 billion a month, $300 million a day. There's no end in sight. And, forgive me, but he says you don't have a plan. So, let's not have more kids killed.

CHENEY: He's wrong. I like Jack Murtha. He's a friend. We did a lot of business together in the past when I was secretary of defense and he was chairman of the defense appropriation subcommittee. But the instances he cites, Beirut in '83 and Somalia in '93, is what bin Laden cited back in 1997 or '98. He made speeches where he, in effect, argued that the Americans didn't have the stomach for a fight, that ultimately the terrorists would win. Al Qaeda would win. And he cited as evidence of that what happened in Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. That's my point.

The fact of the matter is that we are in a global conflict. It's not just about Iraq. It's -- we've seen attacks around the world, from New York and Washington all the way around to Jakarta and Indonesia over the course of the last five years. Our strategy that we adopted after 9/11 -- of progressively going after the terrorists, going after states that sponsor terror, taking the fight to enemy -- has been crucial in terms of our being able to defend the United States.

I think one of the reasons we have not been struck again in five years -- and nobody can promise we won't -- but is because we've taken the fight to them. And if Jack Murtha is successful in persuading the country that somehow we should withdraw now from Iraq, then you have to ask what happens to all of those people who've signed up with the United States, who are on our side in this fight against these radical, extremist Islamic types of bin Laden and al Qaeda.

What happens to the 12 million Iraqis who went to the polls last December and voted in spite of the attacks and the car bombs? What happens to the quarter of a million Iraqis who have gotten into the fight to take on the terrorists? The worst possible thing we could do is what the Democrats are suggesting. And no matter how you carve it -- you can call it anything you want, but because it is packing it in, going home, persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don't have the stomach for this fight.

'We do have a plan'

KING: You disagree with the Democrats' plan. But they are stepping in to a political environment which the American people clearly -- some have anger, some have dissatisfaction, some have doubts about this war and the administration's plan for this war.

Fifty-four percent of the American people say it's a mistake; 55 percent say things are going badly in Iraq; 53 percent in our polling say the American people actually support a timetable. Why is it that the administration has failed to articulate to the American people that -- the American people don't think you have a plan, sir.

CHENEY: Well, they're wrong. We do have a plan. It's there for anybody who wants to take a look at it. The Democrats have repeatedly made this charge. It's simply not the case. There's a good plan in place. We are making significant progress. This is a long-term fight. I think there are a lot of people out there ...

KING: ... You say it's wrong to publicly set a timetable. And I understand the argument for that. You'd cue off -- cue the terrorists to what you're going to do. Has the Iraqi government been told, privately: You need to meet certain benchmarks, training your troops, improving security, by a date certain, because the American people are not going to pay for this forever?

CHENEY: No. I think they know full well that we're expecting them to take on more and more responsibility. It's one of the reasons the president went to Baghdad recently. And all of conversations with them, they know what we're trying to do and they've stepped up to that task and that responsibility. Fact of the matter is that, obviously, we've lost a lot of people. Wish we hadn't lost anybody. But the heavy casualties are being taken by the Iraqis. There are a lot more Iraqis being -- become casualties in this conflict at present, because they are now in a fight.

Again, I come back to the basic proposition. What happens, in the global war on terror, if the United States bails out on Iraq? And that's exactly what withdrawal is. You know, you're going to take your troops before the conflict is over with.

You're not going to complete the mission if we follow the Democrats' advice. And, in fact, we will have set up the situation in which the al Qaeda types can win. They have a plan to establish a caliphate that stretches from Spain all the way around to Indonesia, to kick the Americans out of the Middle East, to destroy Israel, to take down most of those regimes in that part of the world. And they will do anything they can to achieve that objective.

But, ultimately, what they're betting on is that we don't have the stomach for the fight, and we can not afford to validate that strategy. We can win -- we are winning -- but we've got to stay at it.

No regrets

KING: In the political debate over the war, even your friends say that you have given the Democrats a couple of doozies by saying early on we would be greeted as liberators, by saying about a year ago the insurgency was in its last throes. I know factually you have said you stand by those statements based on the circumstances at that time. You're not new to this game; you've been in national politics for 30-something years. In the political environment, do you wish you could take those words back?

CHENEY: No, I think that in fact we're making very significant progress. There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to win. We will prevail in Iraq. We will prevail in Afghanistan. And I think the evidence is there for anybody who wants to look at it.

With respect to the overall course of the campaign, I think it's been very successful. With respect to this question of liberation, we have indeed liberated 50 million people: 25 million in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban; 25 million in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, two of the worst regimes in modern times, very, very significant achievement. But we have to stay the course.

It does not make any sense for people to think that somehow we can retreat behind our ocean, leave the Middle East, walk away from Iraq and we'll be safe and secure here at home. 9/11 put the lie to that. We lost 3,000 people that day. Nineteen people, armed terrorists armed with box cutters, came to the United States and did enormous damage to us. If we pull out they'll follow. It doesn't matter where we go. This is global conflict. We've seen them attack in London, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul and Mombasa in East Africa. They've been on a global basis involved in this conflict. And it will continue whether we complete the job or not in Iraq. Only it will get worse. Iraq will become a safe haven for terrorists. They'll use it in order to launch attacks against our friends and allies in other parts of the world.

KING: You acknowledged this past week that the administration and you personally underestimated the strength of the insurgency. As you know, even friends of the administration, supportive of this war, have criticized the administration, saying that not enough troops would be sent in at the beginning. You have a unique perspective on this. You were the defense secretary in the first Gulf War, you're the vice president now. In the first Gulf War it was the [Gen. Colin] Powell doctrine: you're going to put U.S. troops at risk, so go in in overwhelming numbers with overwhelming force so that there is no doubt. Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld prefers the leaner force, more mobile force.

As history looks at this, is one early lesson that the Powell doctrine trumps the Rumsfeld doctrine?

CHENEY: I don't think so. I think you've got to look at each individual circumstance and figure out what makes sense in terms of the kind of forces you'll need to bring to bear, what your enemy's capable of, what your goals and objectives are. I think you have to be very careful about generalizing from one conflict to the next.

North Korea

KING: I want to move on to some other issues. One of the key issues facing the world right now and the Bush administration is North Korea. It has a missile on a launch pad. Apparently our intelligence suggests it may test that missile any day now. Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, who served in a Democratic administration, writes an op-ed in today's Washington Post, saying: Mr. President, take it out, launch a military strike, take that missile out. You will destroy not only the missile, he says, but a launch pad that is capable of launching nuclear weapons. Why not?

CHENEY: Well, I think that -- you know, I appreciate Bill's advice.

KING: I'll bet you do.

(LAUGHTER)

CHENEY: And I think at this stage we are addressing the issue in the proper fashion. And I think, obviously, if you're going to launch a strike at another nation you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot. And the fact of the matter is I think the issue is being addressed appropriately.

KING: Do we know what's on that missile? Is it a satellite? Is it a warhead? Is it a test?

CHENEY: We don't know. That's one of the concerns, that this is a regime that's not transparent that we believe has developed nuclear weapons and now has put a missile on a launch pad without telling anybody what it's all about -- as to put a satellite in orbit, or a simple test flight. They will, obviously, generate concern on the part of their neighbors and the United States to the extent that they continue to operate this way.

As the president's made clear, this is not the kind of behavior we'd like to see, given the fact the North Koreans do have a nuclear program and have refused to come clean about it.

KING: What do we know about their capabilities? Some have said this new longer range missile could reach Guam, perhaps Alaska. Others say, no, it might be able to reach Los Angeles. And there are some who think maybe even right here, Washington, D.C. What do we know?

CHENEY: We -- this is first test of this particular Taepo Dong II missile -- we believe it does have a third stage added to it now. But again, we don't know what the payload is. I think it's also fair to say that the North Korean missile capabilities are fairly rudimentary. They've been building Scuds and so forth over the years. But their test flights in the past haven't been notably successful. But we are watching it with interest and following it very closely.

Iran nuclear threat

KING: I want to ask a quick question about another international standoff, which is Iran's nuclear program. The president, in Europe yesterday, said Iran should hurry up with its response. It shouldn't wait months. It should get an answer in days or weeks at the most. As you consider that confrontation, many experts have said your options are limited because of the way the Iranians have built their nuclear program. Many think it is invulnerable, if you will, that it is protected from military strikes. I know the president has said diplomacy first; it would be the Security Council next, if the Iranians don't accept this proposal on the table. But when you look at the contingency planning, are you confident that, if it came to it, the United States has a capable military option of taking out that program?

CHENEY: As the president has emphasized, John, we are pursuing the diplomatic option. We think that's the right way to go. But he's also made it clear that nothing has been taken off the table. And I'll leave it at that.

Scooter Libby Trial

KING: I want to bring you to some domestic issues, here at home. I have spent a fair amount of time in recent months in court with your former chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, who, of course, is charged in the CIA leak investigation. One of the things that his defense has introduced as evidence is this: it's a copy of this New York Times article that started all this by Ambassador Joe Wilson, and these scribbles are allegedly yours. Is that a fact?

CHENEY: John, I'm not going to comment on the case. I may be called as a witness. Scooter Libby, obviously, one of the finest men I've ever known. He's entitled to the presumption of innocence. And I have not made any comments on the case up 'til now, and I won't.

KING: Let me ask you one more question about that, then. You say you may be called as a witness. The president urged everyone, very early on, to cooperate in this investigation. Does that mean if you are called as a witness that the administration would, under no circumstances, cite any privileges, either to shield you from testifying about certain issues or to protect certain documents or anything like that?

CHENEY: You're getting into hypothetical now, and I'm not able to answer that. We have cooperated fully with the investigation from day one.

Same-sex marriage

KING: Let me ask you another question. Your daughter recently wrote a book in which she discussed her role in your campaign, but also her decision some time ago in her life to come to you and Mrs. Cheney and disclose that she was a lesbian. And she has issues with the Republican party on the issue of same-sex marriage. And she wrote this: "If the Republican party fails to come around on this issue" -- same-sex marriage -- "I believe it will find itself on the wrong side of history and on a sharp decline into irrelevance. Do you agree with your daughter, Mary, on that?

CHENEY: My -- I've got great love and affection for my daughter, obviously. I think it's a very good book, and I'd recommend people read it.

KING: I'm going to make another attempt at it. The president urged the Senate to vote on this constitutional amendment. Senator [Bill] Frist, a leader in the party -- someone who may run for the presidency -- brought this amendment up. Is that a mistake?

CHENEY: I made my views known a long time ago, John, that I think the fact that states have traditionally been the ones that regulate marriage is the procedure that I think is the right way to go. I think it ought to be a state-to-state matter -- state function. That's not new to anybody. The president sets policy for the administration, and I support the president.

Domestic eavesdropping program

KING: As you know, you had a recent dust-up with Senator [Arlen] Specter, the chairman -- the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wanted to have hearings, wanted to bring the phone companies in, to see how and whether they have cooperated with this domestic eavesdropping program. And he says you were working behind the scenes -- meddling, in his words -- to try to get other members of the committee to put the lid on that and not force the phone companies to come up and testify publicly. Did you do that, sir?

CHENEY: I wouldn't call it meddling. I am the president of the Senate. The fact is, I'm actually paid by the Senate. That's where my paycheck comes from. I often talk with my Senate colleagues about legislation, and that's exactly what I did in this case. Arlen Specter is a good man. I've known him a long time. I think he's an effective chairman of the committee. But if we disagree, there's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't, on behalf of the administration, express administration policy to the members of that committee. And that's what I did.

The Darth Vader of the administration?

KING: I want to close by asking you a few questions about yourself and your image. And one of them flows from that, as you know, some of your old friends say, where is the Dick Cheney, the sarcastic Dick Cheney, the practical joker Dick Cheney? And your critics say, Dick Cheney has become this dark, nefarious force in the administration that believes in secrecy at all price, that believes congressional oversight is a nuisance. True?

CHENEY: I don't think I've changed any. I think I've been very consistent over time. I think partly it's important to remember how significant 9/11 was. We are now engaged in a constant effort, obviously, to protect the nation against further attack. That means we need good intelligence, it means there have to be national security secrets. It means we need to be able to go after and capture or kill those people who are trying to kill Americans. That's not a pleasant business. It's a very serious business. And I suppose sometimes people look at my demeanor and say, well, he's the Darth Vader of the administration.

It's the other thing that's working here, John: I'm not running for anything. My career will end, politically, with this administration. I have the freedom and the luxury -- as does the president -- of doing what we think is right for the country. And the advice I give and the positions I take on issues are based upon that fundamental proposition: We're doing what we're doing in Iraq, in terms of here in the U.S. with the terrorist surveillance program and so forth because we think these are essential policies for the nation to follow. We're not trying to improve our standing in the polls, we're not out there trying to win votes for ourselves. Neither one of us will ever be a candidate again. We're doing what we think is right. And I'm very comfortable with that.

KING: You're also a human being, though. Your poll ratings are lower than the president's. You have an image that, I think it's fair to say, is not positive with the majority of the American people. That doesn't trouble you at all?

CHENEY: There's a great sense of freedom when, in fact, you don't have to worry about the polls. We don't worry about the polls. They go up, the polls go down. The fact of the matter is, we're doing what we think is best for the nation. And that's what the American people elected us to do. I think, ultimately, in the final analysis, that history will judge this president as a very successful, very effective leader. And I'm proud to be part of his team.

KING: You are unique in that you're the vice president, the first vice president in quite some time who's not seeking the presidency in the second term. Let's make a little news: You have a favorite for '08?

CHENEY: No. Republican. I won't go beyond that. We may get involved, eventually, but for now, there are a lot of great candidates thinking about it, and I think it's going to be a wide open race. And I think it's very healthy.

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