Few Americans have had more of an impact on our life and times that Vice President Dick Cheney. At the center of power for decades, Cheney was instrumental in many of the country’s most important policy decisions and continues to arouse strong feelings to this day. Universally acknowledged as one of the most intelligent and informed statesmen to have held office, even by those who disagree with him, Vice President Cheney spent an exclusive two hours in a wide ranging discussion with The Octavian Report to talk about his current views on the world and the greatest risks he currently sees facing America. Cheney discusses his concerns about Iran and North Korea, emerging terrorist threats, Obama’s foreign policy, and, with a notable prescience considering our conversation took place prior to the explosion of ISIS, about the deteriorating outlook in the Middle East.
The Rising Global Risks and American Policies
The Octavian Report: If you look out over the next ten years, what do you think are the mosat significant threats for the United States and the Western World?
Vice President Cheney: Well, I remain very, very concerned about developments in the Middle East, about terrorism, about the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and the extent to which we have rouge states now like North Korea with a rapidly developing inventory of nuclear weapons – apparently now with the latest technology, which supposedly they acquired from the Pakistanis.
I worry about what’s happening with respect to Iran. I am convinced that in the end they will end up with a nuclear capability and that that will trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
I worry very much about the growth and expansion of al-Qaeda. Contrary to what the administration likes to say that once we got bin Laden, the al-Qaeda problem was solved, that just simply isn’t true.
There is a huge vacuum that has been created by the Obama administration. They have withdrawn from Iraq. Terrorists now occupy parts of Iraq that we had liberated and stabilized.
I think our friends in the region no longer trust us. They don’t believe that they can count on us, and I think our adversaries in the region no longer fear us. The policies of the Obama administration are doing enormous damage to our ability to influence events in that part of the world just as things like nuclear proliferation and the growth of terrorism is on the increase.
OR: You have been pretty outspoken about your concerns about some horrific event happening. What do you worry most about?
Cheney: I do believe that if we are not successful in stopping the Iranian program that there will be a number of states in the Middle East that will have nuclear capability. Very different kind of era than we had when it was the US and the Soviet Union. That day is gone. So I worry about the possibility of a weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.
Think about Iran, which has been one of the prime sponsors of terror in the world, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so forth, and look at where we are today in Syria. We have got chaos and everybody is worried about chemical weapons. But if it hadn’t been for the Israeli attack in 2007 on the nuclear reactor the North Koreans had built for the Syrians, we would have a lot more at stake than just chemical weapons in Syria. We would be worried about who has got the nukes.
Similar situation in Libya: when we took down Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi got religion and surrendered all of his centrifuges and weapons design and uranium feedstocks to us. Then the turmoil subsequently followed. If we hadn’t been able to get our hands on those nuclear materials, then you might have had another situation where a government had attained that capability and then fell and the radicals take over and the rules of the game are dramatically different. I think we have to continue to be concerned about that.
And it becomes very, very hard for us to keep track of all that or to influence it if, in fact, we are absent from the area, out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan. And Obama doesn’t care. If you go to Egypt these days, they all believe deeply that Obama pulled the rug out from under President Mubarak and supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody in Egypt today trusts us.
In Syria we talked about doing something about their chemical weapons inventory. A number of our friends, the Saudis, the Emiratis and others were very supportive of an effort by the United States to take action. And then at the last minute Obama pulled the plug and left them high and dry.
So if you live in that part of the world today, you may have been a friend of the United States in the past, but I don’t think our friends any longer trust us, and I don’t see any prospect for a change in that situation as long as Barack Obama is President of the United States.
OR: Do you feel that a future administration could repair that or do you think there has been irreparable damage done to the United States’ standing and credibility?
Cheney: Well, I think it’s conceivable in the future that we have an administration that understands why it’s important to the world for the United States to be strong militarily and to be a reliable ally and to be prepared to use force when it’s necessary. That would go a long way towards beginning the process of recovery. On the other hand, they may well inherit a world that’s dramatically different than the one Obama inherited.
OR: Let’s talk about Iran. Do you think that there can be a diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?
Cheney: I am a skeptic. I certainly hope that that happens. But I really don’t think the Iranians are all that concerned. I think they use negotiations to buy time, they have done it repeatedly now over the years. They have built a significant capability to create nuclear weapons. They have got great enrichment capability.
I can see them in a situation where they get right up to the breakout stage and do whatever they have to do to relieve the sanctions. But I don’t think we are likely to succeed diplomatically. I wish the administration well, I hope they are successful, but I don’t see anything that’s really changed fundamentally in the basic Iranian attitude.
I think they believe that having a nuclear weapon will guarantee their long-term security and survival, and I think the regime is tough enough and brutal enough that they are not going to allow any kind of uprising from within that’s likely to change the regime. Short of a regime change, I am not sure how you change that course of action. And I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult to use military force to deal with the problem.
Obama is going to be there for over two more years. I don’t for a minute believe that he would ever do that. My guess is he will even try to keep the Israelis from doing it.
So all options aren’t on the table, it’s negotiations or nothing, and we are now trying the negotiations, but I must say I am a real skeptic about their prospects for success.
“If the US were perceived as strong and decisive and determined to maintain first class military capability and be the sort of the peacekeeper, I think there would be fewer people ready to try to take advantage of the opportunity that now presents itself because of a weak US that doesn’t want to be involved overseas. ”—Vice President Dick Cheney
OR: Do you think if the world had maintained the level of sanctions that we had that it would have achieved either some sort of change in strategy from the regime or even their overthrow?
Cheney: I doubt it. As I look at that part of the world, what works is when the United States has a presence, is trusted, is feared and respected, and is prepared to use military force if necessary, as we did during Desert Storm back in 1990 and 1991.
And I think the notion that the Iranians are now quaking in their boots worried about sanctions and tough talk from the West simply is invalid. I don’t think there has been a sudden awakening, if you will, that they really don’t need nuclear weapons and that they are prepared to give up nuclear weapons. They have already sacrificed so much and achieved so much and they have really come a long way in terms of building a capability. And I think that allows them a real prospect of being able to be the dominant force in that part of the globe, and I think that’s their objective.
I think the economic sanctions are of modest utility, partly because you can’t really tighten the screws now too much because the other nations involved in the sanctions program don’t have necessarily the same objective we do.
OR: Do you think military action could work, that either the Israelis or the United States at this point could actually destroy their nuclear program?
Cheney: You might not be able to take it all out. A lot of it is now very deeply buried, making it hard targets. On the other hand, you don’t have to take it all out. You can go after certain key nodes.
If you are ever going to launch a military strike, you might want to go after other targets that are not necessarily nuclear related but have a big impact on the economy, the power grid, for example. So I think it’s possible to use military force to stop the Iranian march towards a nuclear weapon.
OR: Why do you think we haven’t had another major terrorist attack? Are we lucky?
Cheney: No, I think a lot of it had to do with the policies we put in place back in the aftermath of 9/11.
OR: Do you think that Israel is facing a real existential threat?
Cheney: Yes. There is no doubt in my mind. I don’t think there’s much doubt in the minds of people like Benjamin Netanyahu that a nuclear-armed Iran, committed to the destruction of Israel, is indeed an existential threat.
And if it were up to me, I would want to be very busy actively planning joint operations, do it with the Israelis, others in the region if they are interested. I think there are a lot of people over there, in other states, Arab states, that might mutter, complain a bit if there were bold action against Iran, but privately they would be cheering. They would be eager to see us take down that problem.
I know from many, many meetings over the years with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia and others, this is the threat they care about most, and they have looked to the United States to solve the problem and up until now we haven’t solved it.
The one time when there was some evidence that the Iranians actually halted their development of a nuclear weapons capability was when we took down Saddam Hussein. And for a period of time there apparently they were very concerned. That’s the same period of time when Gaddafi was worried that he might be next and he surrendered all of his materials. And that’s the one point at which there was some evidence that the Iranians actually halted their program in the aftermath of our action in Iraq. That kind of action isn’t likely to occur under this administration, and that means that there’s not a lot of substance or weight behind our diplomacy.
Russia and China
OR: How big of a geopolitical threat do you think Russia is?
Cheney: Well, geopolitically, I think it’s clearly not the kind of situation we had during the Cold War. But when I look at Putin, I see KGB. That’s where he came from, that’s what he was. He has obviously managed the political process such as it is inside Russia, so that he is there as long as he wants to be. Nobody is going to replace Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia until he is ready to step down, and I don’t think there are going to be effective term limits.
I think he in some respects wants ranking nation respect in the international community, but I also think he is doing everything he can to try to re-control or re-assert Russian influence over the Near Abroad. We have seen it today in Ukraine. There is a strong, strong sentiment in Ukraine to align with the West and real resistance to Russian domination.
I think he will take advantage of every opportunity. Right now the performance of the Obama administration is so weak in the Middle East that Putin has no qualms at all about exercising or trying to exercise authority over and control events in what used to be part of the old Soviet Union. Same thing for China: the Chinese are suddenly actively and aggressively in the South China Sea.
I come back to the proposition if the US were perceived as strong and decisive and determined to maintain first class military capability and be the sort of the peacekeeper, if you will, I think there would be fewer people ready to try to take advantage of the opportunity that now presents itself because of a weak US that doesn’t want to be involved overseas.
I think we have got a President in office who fundamentally believes that a strong United States from a military standpoint is a danger. The speech he gave in Cairo in the summer of 2009, when he went to the largest Arab nation in the world and apologized for our “overreaction” to 9/11, I think that’s what he really believes. And I think as a result of that we are going to see greater instability in various places around the world, the kinds of assertions by the Russians and the Chinese that indicate they don’t have to pay attention to the United States, that we are not a player, and the proliferation of deadly technology and the spread of terrorism and the ideology of terrorism that increasingly dominates the Middle East.
OR: Do you see us on a trajectory for a conflict with China or do you think that they in fact will “peacefully rise” as they often say?
Cheney: I think you can’t help but be impressed by what the Chinese have done economically. It’s a tremendous story. It’s also very closely bound up with our own economy and our economy is bound up with their economy. So I don’t at this point fear a direct conflict in a military sense, I don’t think that’s likely anytime in the near term. I don’t think they are interested in going to war with the United States, and we certainly aren’t interested in going to war with them.
But their economic power, they are now the number two economy in the world, makes them a major player, and we want a productive if perhaps competitive relationship economically for both countries. We’ve got a great deal at stake. But, as I say, if they sense weakness, they will take advantage of it.
OR: Do you think that there will be continued heightened tension or even military conflict between Japan and China, because there has been a lot of saber rattling recently?
Cheney: There has been. I think it’s important that we maintain our very close ties and involvement with the Japanese. They are crucial allies, a cornerstone of our position in Asia. I think it’s very important not to allow the Japanese to look at what we’re doing in the Middle East as some kind of an indication that they can’t count on us either.
I do think that it’s possible to manage that relationship between Japan and China. I think both of them have an interest in not having a war. That would be a huge mistake and obviously would involve the US very deeply and very directly because of our ties to the Japanese. But I don’t anticipate that. I can see a continued struggle over who owns what islands and where we are going to draw the borders, who has access to which pieces of territory. But my own judgment would be that cooler heads would prevail and you are not likely to see an out and out conflict.
I worry more about North Korea. North Korea has been a very bad actor, probably the worst proliferator. They now have a leader who is an absolute huge question mark. And he is potentially a source of significant danger for the United States. You get to the point where you don’t need to have a large force of intercontinental ballistic missiles to be a significant nuclear power.
You’ve got to worry about things like an EMP [an electromagnetic pulse]. A nuclear device set off at the right altitude above the United States and programmed to produce significant gamma radiation could do enormous damage to our entire economy in terms of frying our electrical grid.
The Threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse
OR: How does the United States protect itself against that kind of threat and even against a natural electromagnetic pulse that could theoretically come from the sun?
Cheney: Well, I think it’s a very serious problem. I think it’s a real threat. As I say, I think it’s a threat with respect to the North Koreans, maybe some Iranians. You don’t need sophisticated nuclear capability to do enormous damage to the United States. If you are going to just get that one warhead a couple of hundred miles above the United States at present, you can shut down our economy totally, and it’s a threat that we do need to deal with.
I am afraid we haven’t done as much as we should. I think we need to do more to guard against that kind of thing. And even if you write off the North Koreans and say, well it’s just another nut – which I am not prepared to do, I think he is a very dangerous guy – then you do have to worry about the solar situation. There are technical ways we can protect ourselves against those kinds of events, including the solar flares, in terms of the impact that it would have on our electrical grid if we don’t act.
OR: How much warning would we have?
Cheney: Well, we keep track now, obviously, and watch the solar flares very closely. I was told by a technical expert that recently there was a major outburst from the sun that we missed by about a week, that is to say our position.
There was an event back in 1859, called the Carrington Event, where in fact the US did get hit with a significant dose of solar radiation. But in those days the only electrical equipment we had was the telegraph.
So you can’t predict it, but you can go back and look at ice and glaciers and so forth and find evidence where we have been subjected to that before. But of course in those days we didn’t have a super-sophisticated electronically- driven economy that was the backbone of our whole society.
I do think that technically we can deal with it. There are steps we can take. It costs money and you’ve got to be determined to go forward with it but I really think we should. I think it’s a major concern. It’s very hard to predict the threat, but we know if it ever happens, if we ever are on the receiving end of a major burst of solar energy given the extent to which we’re totally reliant now on electricity and the power grid and our transformers and so forth, we would have a very, very serious, significant event.
There have been a number of studies that a worst case scenario would sort of end life in the United States today as we know it. We would be drawn back into a period of time when we had absolutely no economic capability, no electrical capability whatsoever.
OR: Is there a lack of strategic thinking or are we actually thinking about these things?
Cheney: Well, I don’t want to get into any classified areas. Obviously it’s the kind of subject that would have been considered over the years from a national security standpoint. But what I am talking about now is just the vulnerability of our civilian infrastructure and that most of it is not capable of sustaining the kind of surge that would go with either a nuclear device or a major solar event. I think there’s a lot that can be done and should be done, I think industry in part resisted, but I think it’s something that’s really top on my list of concerns.
OR: Industry resisted because of the additional regulation?
Cheney: Exactly, the regulation. I think the utility industry is so overburdened now that it’s subjected to so much additional regulation by this administration. And so I don’t hear anybody in the power industry out there advocating a course of action and the other ones that would have to implement it, but I do think we need to do it.
The Next Elections
OR: Switching gears, do you think that the political wind is shifting somewhat? Do you think the Republicans will do better in the midterm elections and do you think there’s a possibility of retaking The White House?
Cheney: I think that there is clearly a possibility. If I look at the 2014 election, I would expect that the troubles of the Obama administration, especially with Obama Care, for example, are going to be a heavy burden for the Democrats to carry in the next election because they virtually voted for it unanimously and it’s been a disaster so far. It’s not just the fouled up website and the rollout but millions of people who lost their health insurance policies.
I find that Obama’s ratings increasingly reflect a dis-satisfaction with his performance. I think 2014 right now appears like a very good year for Republicans. So we may well certainly expect to hold the House and may well be able to take back the Senate and that would set the stage, I think, for a good shot at The White House in 2016. We are going to have to have a good candidate and everybody wants to talk about that.
OR: Do you think that the Republican Party needs to moderate or do you think it will regardless?
Cheney: Well, I am always leery of following the advice that Democrats want to give us, which is usually, well, if you just are more like us Democrats, you win elections. I don’t believe that.
I think it’s very important that we stand for what we believe in. It’s difficult with the period we are living through now when people talk about compromise and getting together in the middle with respect to the administration and so forth.
That is a very hard thing to do if the administration is the most radical we have ever seen in the history of the republic, and if you only go half way towards ObamaCare you’ve still got a train wreck.
So I am not one of those who advocates more compromise with the Democrats. I think that we need to stand up for the principles we believe in and while there are differences within the party, I think it’s basically healthy. The tea party movement has taken on significant dimension and influence, but it’s inside the party and that’s where it ought to be.
And I also think that the things they believe in and stand for in terms of strong adherence to the constitution and so forth, a lot of those are basic fundamental Republican positions.
I think we will have a wide open, very competitive selection process for a nominee and that’s basically good and healthy. And I think there is every reason to believe that the state that Obama has put the country in is such that we will have significant advantages in the 2016 election.
OR: Is there any other time in your career that this period of time reminds you of?
Cheney: Well, I harken back to Carter. I was Ford’s Chief of Staff during the ‘76 campaign when we lost to Carter. We almost won. But the good thing that emerged out of that was it led to Ronald Reagan. And it’s almost as if we had to have Jimmy Carter in order to get to Reagan and Reagan was, in the minds of most Republicans and conservatives, a very good president and did great things for the country.
So if I get pessimistic at all these days, I remind myself of those years and that we may be in a similar situation where we had to go through Barack Obama in order to get to the next Ronald Reagan. We’re going through a unique period now. Barack Obama represents the most radical President we’ve had in the last century. He is basically trying to take over one section of the nation’s economy with ObamaCare.
He has dramatically reduced our capacity to influence events internationally, withdrawn from key parts of the world, dramatically reduced the defense budget. That’s the kind of thing that gets us in trouble. He will have a big impact. But, I also think he is so far out of what I consider to be the mainstream of American politics that the Democrats will pay a heavy price, next time the question is ‘who is going to be our next President?’
“The secret to our wealth and our success economically is a strong private sector and the bigger the government gets the less the likelihood that we’re going to restore the kind of robust economic growth that's been the cornerstone of our success in decades past.”—Vice President Dick Cheney
OR: A couple of questions on energy. Do you think that the hydrocarbon finds in the Eastern Mediterranean will proceed or will Israel never be able to become an energy power?
Cheney: No, it’s interesting. There have been obviously the significant gas finds offshore in Israel. If we find and can develop those kinds of resources, it not only has a big impact on Israel but on the geopolitics, if you will, of that part of the world.
OR: Do you think that the shale is a real game changer for the US?
Cheney: Yes, shale and the technology in fracking and in directional drilling in particular. When we were at Halliburton, we were heavily involved in fracking at that point. Halliburton is one of the originators of the process. When we used it originally it was to go back into old wells or especially tight formations to increase the productivity of a particular well.
Now when you marry that up with the directional drilling and so forth, it’s a remarkable technology. Our ability to be able to drill down and then target specific small pockets of shale and then develop gas and oil from shale is a game-changer.
I think of all the speeches I made over the years about energy independence and about how dependent we were on foreign sources and so forth. A lot of people made those speeches and I was one of them. The good news is that government really didn’t have anything to do with it. The private sector through initiative and entrepreneurship and risk-taking and innovation has produced a fundamental revolution in terms of our access to our energy resources here and it’s a remarkable achievement.
It may be the only thing that’s kept the economy performing even as moderately as it has. Without that revolution in energy over the course of the last few years, we wouldn’t have been able to keep our heads above water from an economic standpoint.
A friend at a large chemical company for a good part of his career was moving everything offshore because gas was a lot cheaper overseas. Now he is bringing it back to the US again because of the abundance of the gas that we’ve now got. It’s a tremendous development.
OR: Do you think that we will ever politically be able to reduce the size and complexity of the government and its presence in the economy?
Cheney: I certainly hope so. I have trouble believing we are ever going to return to the kind of robust economic growth we’ve been used to often in the past, and better distribution with respect to wealth in the society, if we don’t. And if I am looking for precedent, I think of Maggie Thatcher in Britain and what she did when she came to power and fundamentally reversed the socialist course of affairs in Britain.
I really do believe that the secret to our wealth and our success economically is a strong private sector, and the bigger the government gets, the more regulations imposed on the private sector, the bigger the tax bite, the less the likelihood that we’re going to restore the kind of robust economic growth that’s been the cornerstone of our success in decades past. I think we have to do that.
OR: Mr. Vice President, thank you.
Dick Cheney served as the 46th Vice President of the United States.