What do you do when the excuses you used to "justify" an unwise and unnecessary war are completely discredited.
If you're Vice President Dick Cheney, you make up a new one.
Cheney's favorite excuse, the claim that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had significant ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, was never credible. But the vice president's attempts to peddle the theory became absurd after it was rejected by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States. Cheney kept trying to spin the fantasy for weeks after 9 11 Commission reported that there was no working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda. But he finally had to acknowledge during last Tuesday night's debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards that he has no evidence to sustain the claim.
Cheney's second favorite excuse, the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that might threaten its neighbors and the United States, was never any more credible than the al Qaeda fantasy. But Cheney knew as he debated Edwards Tuesday night that it would be completely obliterated by a report scheduled for release the following day. That report, compiled by Charles A. Duelfer, chief arms inspector for the Central Intelligence Agency, confirmed what honest observers had known for years: that Iraq had under pressure from the United Nations eliminated its capacity to develop illicit weapons by the mid 1990s.
In a bind, Cheney grabbed during the debate for one of his most ridiculous "justifications": the claim that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was harboring Abu Nidal, a Palestinian charged with masterminding acts of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem with this claim is that Nidal died in August, 2002, two months before the Bush administration sought and received permission from the U.S. Congress to use force against Iraq.
Stuck for an excuse, Cheney hit the campaign trail the day after the debate with a new claim: The war has been necessary because Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders were abusing the United Nations "Oil-for-Food" program. Dismissing the Duelfer report's confirmation that Iraq had no stockpiles of WMDs, Cheney seized on the reports mention of "Oil-for-Food" program abuses to declare, "The suggestion is clearly there by Mr. Duelfer that Saddam had used the program in such a way that he had bought off foreign governments and was building support among them to take the sanctions down." Then the vice president made the leap for a new justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq: "As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back" to his weapons program, the mind-reading vice president declared. Thus, said Cheney, "delay, defer, wait, wasn't an option."
There is little doubt that Hussein diverted money from the program, which was set up in 1996 to ease the burden on Iraqis who were suffering from hunger and lack of medical care as a result of the U.N. sanctions against the country. But as an excuse for invading and occupying a country, it is Cheney's lamest excuse yet.
After all, "Oil-for-Food" program abuses did not merely benefit Saddam Hussein and his cronies. They also, according to the report produced by CIA chief arms inspector Duelfer, benefitted a number of U.S. corporations that rushed into Iraq to siphon off money funds for themselves.
Duelfer found that Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Bay Oil had received lucrative vouchers that allowed them to buy Iraqi oil and sell it abroad for big profits.
Additionally, Cheney's old company, Halliburton, the top oil services corporation in the U.S., filled its coffers with Iraqi money during the heyday of the Oil for Food program. When Cheney's was Halliburton's CEO, the company did not collect vouchers; rather, its subsidiaries took advantage of the opening created by the "Oil-for-Food" program to cut deals with Saddam Hussein's government that allowed it to take money directly from Iraq. During 1998 and 1999, Halliburton's Dresser Rand and Ingersoll Dresser Pump subsidiaries signed contracts to provide roughtly $73 million in oil production equipment and spare parts to Iraq.
The services provided by Halliburton's subsidiaries during the period when Cheney was chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based company helped rebuild Iraq's oil production and distribution infrastructure. That work, which got Iraqi oil flowing, was, of course, necessary for the implementation of the "Oil-for-Food" program -- and, presumably for the abuses about which Cheney is now so concerned.
Under Cheney's leadership, the contracts obtained by Halliburton subsidiaries were among the most substantial awarded any U.S. firm doing business with Saddam Hussein. But they were not as ambitious as the company would have liked. A scheme to have Halliburton subsidiaries repair an Iraqi oil terminal that had been destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War was blocked by the U.S. government because it was determined to violate the sanctions regime.
Might Cheney have been unaware of the Halliburton Iraq tie -- as he tried to claim in one 2000 interview? Not likely. James Perrella, former chairman of Ingersoll Rand told the Washington Post that based on his knowledge of how Halliburton and its subsidiaries worked, Cheney had to have known. "Oh, definitely," Perrella said of Cheney, "he was aware of the business."
Only on the eve of the 2000 presidential election campaign, in which Cheney would secure a position on the Republican ticket by manipulating the vice presidential selection process in his favor, did Halliburton cut the business ties with Iraq that had been made so lucrative by the "Oil-for-Food" program.
But, now, as he searches for a new excuse to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Cheney is suddenly concerned about abuses of the "Oil-for-Food" program.
What excuse is next? Perhaps Cheney will suggest that the occupation must be maintained in order to prevent war profiteering by companies such as, er, well, Halliburton.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com