“No Q and A.” That’s what Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said to me on the elevator at his think tank on Monday morning. I knew what he meant. Dick Cheney was coming to AEI, the prowar, neocon headquarters, to give yet another speech on the Iraq war. Last week, Cheney blasted critics who claim Bush misled the nation into war, calling these accusations the most “dishonest” and “reprehensible” statements he’s ever encountered in Washington. (And he’s been around a long time.) But Cheney, as is his custom, refused at AEI to take questions from reporters on this or any other subject. Presumably, if he held a press conference, he’d be asked to explain his prewar claims about Iraq’s supposed WMDs and its supposed contacts with al Qaeda that were not supported by the existing intelligence. (I came prepared to inquire if Cheney thought it had been “dishonest” of him to point to a Czech intelligence report that claimed 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before September 11, even though the CIA and FBI had discounted this report.) Cheney also might have been asked about the recent news that executives from four large oil companies did meet with his energy task force in 2001, even though CEOs from these firms testified to Congress this month their executives had not. So many Qs for Cheney. But no As.

When Cheney finished his speech–which consumed only one-third of the hour that AEI had scheduled for the event–he quickly darted off. He didn’t even stay to greet the AEI policy wonks who had been seeded in the first rows of seats (thus pushing journalists toward the back) and who had applauded enthusiastically for their man in the White House. MSNBC’s David Shuster approached me and remarked, “I thought you were going to shout out a question at Cheney.” I had thought about doing so. But before I could close my notebook, Cheney was gone.

His speech was both defiant and yielding. He opened with a White House retreat that George W, Bush began the previous day. Noting that the headlines last week said he had called critics of the war “dishonest and reprehensible,” Cheney stated,

I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof. Disagreement, argument, and debate are the essence of democracy, and none of us should want it any other way.

He also praised Representative Jack Murtha, the conservative and hawkish Democrat who last week called for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Murtha’s proposal was initially met by hooting from a White House that didn’t address Murtha’s policy criticisms but that instead derided him as having been captured by Michael Moore and fringe elements of the Democratic Party. Days later, a Republican congresswoman implied that Murtha, a former Marine, was a coward for advocating disengagement. For his part, Murtha fought back by observing that he was not going to fret about attacks from folks who had ducked the Vietnam War by obtaining multiple deferments–a direct reference to Cheney. At AEI, Cheney, following Bush’s lead, hailed Murtha as a “good man” and “a patriot,” who “is taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion.” Clearly, the White House (maybe after polling) had concluded that it could not win a ground war against Murtha. It was waving a white flag.

As part of this strategic, rhetorical withdrawal, Cheney also said there was nothing untoward about

debating whether the United States and our allies should have liberated Iraq in the first place. Here, as well, the differing views are very passionately and forcefully stated. But nobody is saying we should not be having this discussion, or that you cannot reexamine a decision made by the President and the Congress some years ago.

In other words, it’s fine to refight that war. No critic need worry about being accused of treason or of undermining the troops by denouncing Bush’s war.

But then Cheney made his stand:

What is not legitimate–and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible–is the suggestion by some U. S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence.

Here we go again. Prior to the invasion, Bush, Cheney and other administration officials did make many statements that were not backed up by the available intelligence. Were these merely careless mistakes? Why not call for a quick conclusion to the Phase II investigation of the Senate intelligence committee and see what the evidence indicates? Rather, Cheney declared,

The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false.

How does he explain that administration officials cited evidence that was in dispute–such as Iraq’s infamous acquisition of aluminum tubes that Bush officials said could only be used for a nuclear weapons program–and claimed it was rock solid? Is it not a distortion to repeatedly cite an intelligence report that has been discredited by the CIA and the FBI?

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Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the battle over the prewar intelligence, Curveball-gate, the rise of the new Open Source Media site, Bush’s Zarqawi problem, Ahmad Chalabi’s weak defense, and other in-the-news matters.

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And Cheney, despite his earlier statement, could not help but play the undercuts-the-troops card:

American soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate. One might also argue that untruthful charges against the Commander-in-Chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. I’m unwilling to say that, only because I know the character of the United States Armed Forces–men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other fronts. They haven’t wavered in the slightest,

Cheney was indeed suggestion that questioning whether he and Bush deliberately oversold the intelligence could be bad for the troops. But since American GIs are so swell, such statements do not unduly affect them. The White House has made an obvious calculation: let’s not attack Jack Murtha, let’s go after Harry Reid.

Then he pulled out the usual rhetoric. The United States could not afford to withdraw and signal weakness to the “terrorists.” He noted that the “terrorists” want to “gain control” of Iraq “so they have a base from which to launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands.” And he remarked,

Those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions: Would the United States and other free nations be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden, and Zawahiri in control of Iraq? Would we be safer, or less safe, with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?

This is the same simplistic formulation the Bush crowd has been using since the invasion. In this characterization of the war, there is only us and them, the “them” being Zarqawi and the “terrorists” that have flocked to Iraq after the invasion. But Iraq is full of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and the insurgency consists of much more than Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq. Does any reasonable Middle East analyst believe that Zarqawi could take over Iraq, against the wishes of the Shiites and their militias? Zarqawi poses a serious problem, but the more profound dilemma in Iraq involves the rising sectarian conflict and violence within a state that perhaps should not be a state. Bush and Cheney do not fully address this in public.

Cheney, instead, held up a phony argument to assault:

It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone.

Who says that? Who believes that if the United States disengages in Iraq that al Qaeda would say, “Never mind”? Not Jack Murtha. Not any Democrat or Republican who has questioned the war. One could even ask if in making such a claim Cheney was being a tad “dishonest.”

Cheney finished up with the “we will not retreat” mantra. He had nothing new to say about what his administration can do to end the war–or US involvement in Iraq–in the near-term. He was playing to his base, throwing out the same old/same old reasons for keeping US troops in Iraq. That Bush and Cheney still have to explain the war and that they had to reverse course on Operation Smear Murtha indicates that Bush and his lieutenants remain alienated and isolated in a bunker of their own making.