Cheney's Pentagon Days

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dick Cheney's tenure as defense secretary under President George Bush is best remembered for his role in planning the 1991 Persian Gulf War — from the pivotal moment of getting Saudi Arabia's OK to assemble U.S. forces there, to the fateful decision not to send ground troops into Baghdad.

During that eight-month crisis, Cheney presented a public persona of the cool, calculating Pentagon chief even while he sometimes clashed behind the scenes with Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On Tuesday, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, introduced Cheney as his running mate, calling the 59-year-old Cheney ``a distinguished and experienced statesman.''

Before taking the Pentagon job, Cheney served six terms as a Republican congressman from Wyoming, and before that he was President Ford's chief of staff. Throughout his career in public service Cheney has been known for his quiet confidence, his attention to detail and a knack for decisiveness.

In his 1993 book, ``Crusade,'' about the Gulf War, author Rick Atkinson said Cheney had ``elevated inscrutability to an art,'' noting that the balding, bespectacled Cheney rarely expresses more than a grin or frown.

The man who was Cheney's top military assistant at the Pentagon, Rear Adm. Joseph Lopez, credited him with ``the best poker face in Washington.''

For all his experience with national security issues, Cheney never served in uniform. He received service deferments in the 1960s as a student and a young father.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Powell initially questioned the wisdom of going to war with Iraq to liberate the tiny emirate; he focused on defending Saudi Arabia and its vitally important oil fields. Cheney, on the other hand, was among the Bush Cabinet members who viewed the Iraqi invasion in broader terms. Cheney saw danger in allowing Saddam to remain in Kuwait, where he could intimidate the Saudis.

In his 1995 autobiography, ``My American Journal,'' Powell recalled asking at a White House meeting, as Iraqi forces approached the Saudi border, whether it was worth going to war to liberate Kuwait.

Later that day in Cheney's office, Powell recounted, Cheney rebuked him for overstepping his authority.

''`Colin, you're chairman of the Joint Chiefs,''' he quoted Cheney as saying. ''`You're not secretary of state. You're not the national security adviser anymore. And you're not secretary of defense. So stick to military matters.''

Powell also privately questioned Cheney's decision in September 1990 to sack Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan, who drew Cheney's wrath by telling reporters about U.S. plans for air strikes on Baghdad and for targeting Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president.

Brent Scowcroft, in the book ``A World Transformed,'' co-authored with the elder Bush, recalled Cheney insisting that the United States make a forceful early response to Saddam Hussein's aggression.

``Saudi Arabia and others will cut and run if we are weak,'' Scowcroft quoted Cheney as saying. Scowcroft was Bush's national security adviser.

In early August, before it was clear whether Iraqi forces would attempt to capture Saudi oil fields, Bush dispatched Cheney to Saudi Arabia to secure King Fahd's approval for assembling U.S. troops and warplanes inside his kingdom — a move the Saudis had balked at even while condemning Saddam.

He was successful, laying the foundation for the Gulf War operation.

Cheney earned a reputation during his four years at the Pentagon for forcefully demonstrating that civilians were in charge of the military. In March 1989, for example, one week after taking office, Cheney publicly bashed Dugan's predecessor, Gen. Larry Welch, for negotiating with Congress over updating a nuclear force.

``General Welch was free-lancing,'' Cheney told reporters.

But Cheney was widely admired by people in uniform, Powell said Tuesday.

``He was a great civilian leader for the armed forces of the United States,'' Powell told CNN. ``We knew we had a commander in Dick Cheney who understood us, would take care of us, and would support us in every way possible.''

Cheney also was defense secretary during the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

During his years in Congress, Cheney was known as a politician who never met a weapons program he didn't like. When he got to the Pentagon, however, he changed his tune — more out of necessity than anything else.

Under pressure from Congress to cut the defense budget in the aftermath of the Cold War, Cheney canceled an enormously expensive and much-cherished Navy aircraft program, the A-12 stealth bomber.

He also tried to get Congress to kill the V-22 Osprey aircraft, but lost. He argued for building 75 of the Air Force's B-2 stealth bombers, but Congress eventually limited the production run to 21 planes.