Cheney the survivor without challengers
By Andrew Ward and Edward Luce
Published: September 1 2007 03:00 | Last updated: September 1 2007 03:00
Dick Cheney once jokingly referred to himself as Darth Vader - such was his dark reputation with the mainstream US media. With the departure of Karl Rove on Friday, George W. Bush's electoral mastermind, the US vice-president is seen as "the last man standing" in the administration.
Yet far from being the increasingly isolated figure that he is often portrayed, Mr Cheney wields influence that has arguably never been greater. Among the close circle of trusted advisors that Mr Bush has relied on since coming to the White House, only Mr Cheney remains.
The others - the so-called "Texas mafia" that included Harriet Miers, the former counsel, Dan Barlett, director of communications, Karen Hughes, a senior advisor, Alberto Gonzales, the outgoing attorney-general and Mr Rove - have all left.
It was this informal coterie that would retreat with Mr Bush to his private quarters after formal White House meetings and take the hard decisions. "These were the people Bush trusted and where he could say anything," said a former Cheney aide. "Cheney will now be unchallenged."
Of the inner circle, Mr Rove was probably the only one with equal weight to the vice-president - although they did not always see eye to eye. Mr Rove's principal agenda has been to expand the Republican party'selectoral base to create a "permanent majority". Mr Cheney's has been to expand the executive powers that he believes were illegitimately taken from the White House after Watergate in the 1970s.
Often they were chasing two different rabbits. It is Mr Cheney who looks farlikelier to accomplish his agenda. "There is no one left who can now out-argue the vice-president," says Jule-anna Glover, another former Cheney aide.
The fact that the White House has no candidaterunning in 2008 further increases Mr Cheney's room for manoeuvre, particularly given Mr Rove's departure. "Rove was first and foremost a political animal," says Stephen Hayes, Mr Cheney's biographer. "He looked at how policies could benefit the Republicans. Cheney's attitude is: 'Politics be damned. This is the right thing to do. Now someone else go sell it to the American public and our allies'."
Nor, as some have suggested, does Mr Gonzales' departure necessarily weaken the vice-president's hand. "In terms of the formulation of arguments, Gonzales was never much of a player," said John Bolton, a former ally of Mr Cheney in the Bush administration and a former UN ambassador, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washingon. "David Addington [a senior Cheney aide] was the main theoretician of executive privilege and he is still there."
The first significant test of Mr Cheney's influence in the post-Rove era will come within the next few weeks, when Mr Bush picks a nominee to replace Mr Gonzales as attorney-general. People close to the White House say Mr Cheney wants a conservative nominee who will defend the expansion ofpresidential power he has championed over the past six years.
But Mr Bush is under pressure from others in the administration to choose an independent figure who would stand up to the White House. Bruce Fein, a former senior law officer in the Reagan administration, says the identity of Mr Gonzales' replacement will determine "whether the Cheneyexecutive privilege agenda will continue to prevail".
Mr Cheney, who has declined several requests for interviews, has focused his vice-presidency on reversing the constraints placed on executive power following Watergate and the Vietnam war. It was this philosophy that led to the launchof a controversial domestic eavesdropping programme after the September 11 2001terrorist attacks, the opening of the GuantánamoBay detention centre and the blurring of US policy towards torture. Perhaps the clearest evidence of Mr Cheney's overriding influence is the deadlock over the future of Guantánamo.
The vice-president is the only high-profile administration official still arguing for the detention centre to be kept open. Yet his views have so far trumped the growing consensus elsewhere in the administration about the need to work towards closing the facility.
"Cheney's most important goal is to establish beyond this presidency the White House's pre-eminent and in some respects exclusive role to make war, determine what war is and who is a combatant," says Mr Fein. "That will be his legacy."
While Mr Cheney has lost some ground to foreign policy moderates, those who know him well insist he will continue to push for tougher action to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. "He should not be underestimated on this point," says a former senior administration official.
"Cheney has argued for military action against Iran before and he will likely do so again. If the current round of UN resolutions fail to get Iran to change course, then Cheney's argument will gather strength through 2008."
Mr Bolton says on foreign policy the Bush administration will retain its strongest freedom of action. "People tend to forget that we do not have a parliamentary system - the powers of the executive do not depend on whocontrols the legislature or on the state of public opinion," he says. "We have aseparation of powers. This is especially true of foreignpolicy."