Interview of the Vice President by Greg Sheridan, the Australian
1:10 P.M. (Local)
Q: Sir, welcome to Australia. And thank you very much for making time to see me.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's great to be back.
Q: Of course, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about Iraq. But I wondered, sir, if I might start with Iran. And I'd like to ask you how dangerous for the world would a nuclear-armed Iran be?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the danger would be considerable for several reasons. We've seen Iran in recent years is now led by a man who's radical by most definitions -- Mr. Ahmadinejad, who espouses an apocalyptic philosophy. And has made threatening noises about Israel, about the United States, and others. They are the prime sponsor of Hezbollah. They have worked to support Hezbollah, working through Syria, in the conflict with Israel last summer in an effort to try to topple the government of Lebanon.
They, working through Hamas, have added to the difficulties of trying to get some kind of peace process started with respect to the Palestinians and the Israelis. They clearly frighten most of their neighbors in the region out there. I've heard from most of them about their concerns about Iran trying to assert itself and dominating the region. They also occupy one side of the Persian Gulf. And that gives them the capability to interfere with about 20 percent of the world's daily supply of oil, 18 million barrels a day that flows in the Straits of Hormuz. And obviously a large part of the world's oil production is within range of Iranian military capabilities. So if you add to all of that nuclear weapons, I think it would, in fact, constitute a significant danger -- not just on a regional basis, but clearly to the potential to have an impact far beyond that.
Q: And, sir, how far away from having nuclear weapons, do you think Iran is?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we -- I think your best guide there probably is the work done by the IAEA. They still have inspectors going into Iran. And you can get various estimates sort of what the point of no return is. Is it that point at which they actually possess weapons, or would it come sooner, say at that point when they had mastered the technology but perhaps not yet produced enough fissile material to have weapons?
Those are all debatable points. But we don't believe they have any at present, but we do believe they are working to enrich uranium to levels that will make it possible for them to produce a weapon.
Q: How bad is their interference in Iraq?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's been a problem. It's a complex relationship between Iraq and Iran. And their neighbors -- one thing. They fought a very bloody war in the '80s. On the other hand, there are common ties of family and religion back and forth across that border. In terms of their activities, we've made it clear we believe they have engaged in providing improvised explosive devices, for example, to insurgents inside Iraq that have been used against coalition forces. And of course, we've taken action recently to crack down on identifiable Iraqi agents operating inside Iraq -- Iranian agents operating inside Iraq and made it clear that we think that their conduct there has been inappropriate.
Q: So would you share Senator McCain's formulation that the only thing worse than a military confrontation with Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe that it's important that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons. And I would guess that John McCain and I probably are pretty close to agreement on that issue.
Q: Sir, on Iraq, what will success look like?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the general consensus would be a situation in which the Iraqis are self-governing and capable of providing for their own security, able to function without allowing their nation to become a safe haven for terrorists or a threat to their neighbors. And I think we've made significant progress in that regard. Political progress has been pretty impressive. They've been through three national elections. They've written a constitution. The government that's now in power has been in place about nine months. They've come a long way from the days when Saddam Hussein was the dictator in Baghdad. They've still got a long way to go. They know that -- a lot of work to do in terms of getting government functioning efficiently the way it needs to function in terms of providing for basic services and so forth.
The other piece of it then, of course, would be for them to have security forces that are capable of dealing with any security threat so that they no longer require significant coalition presence.
Q: Sir, without providing the terrorists a date, do you have any sense of a time frame for when that might likely evolve, that situation?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't think you can put a timetable on it. I think to some extent it clearly will be determined by conditions on the ground. I think it's -- I've heard the argument made that the terrorists will give up when they become convinced that the rest of us aren't going to quit, that in fact, we're not talking about a situation in which there's no violence. That's unrealistic, but I think we do need to make enough progress so that the level of violence is less than what it has been in recent months.
Q: Sir, Australia has been in Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States from the very beginning. But the troop numbers have been relatively small. Do you believe the Australian contribution has been meaningful -- militarily meaningful in both those theaters?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think it has. We like very much working with the Australians, and they have been there from the very beginning. SAS troops are great, work closely with our guys in the special ops field. And I think the contribution has been significant.
Q: Would it be a significant setback if all Australian combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, it would clearly be a disappointment from our standpoint. I think the United States, I believe, will stay until we've got the job done right. We deeply appreciate Australia, the Brits, others who've been there from the beginning and made a contribution and been willing to get into the fight with us. It's my belief that we all have a stake in getting the right outcome in Iraq. This isn't just a U.S. policy or a U.S. problem.
I think back to what happened in Afghanistan when we were actively involved in Afghanistan in the '80s supporting the mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets. And after that was over with, we all walked away. And what we got for that was a civil war inside Afghanistan, followed by the emergence of the Taliban, and, of course, by 1996, it became a safe haven and a refuge for Osama bin Laden. Training camps were set up that trained terrorists -- maybe as many as 20,000 terrorists in the late '90s that struck us on 9/11 and killed 3,000 of our citizens, and killed a number of Aussies in Bali not too long after that, and have struck an awful lot of cities in between. The world cannot turn its back on what happens in that part of the globe anymore and expect not to be affected by it.
Given modern technology, given the development of the extremist Islamic movement, if you will, given their desire to get their hands on ever deadlier technology to use against us and their willingness to strike virtually any place in the world, it's foolish for people to think we can walk away from a situation like Afghanistan or Iraq and be secure in own homes. We've learned on 9/11 in the United States that that's really not the case.
Now, the U.S. is obviously actively involved in the effort. I think the rest of the world needs to recognize that this isn't just a U.S. problem.
Q: Sir, under President Bush and Prime Minister Howard, the U.S.-Australia alliance has become very close. There's a new level of intelligence sharing and so forth. Have you been happy to participate in that process? Would you say the alliance is now closer than it was when President Bush came to office, closer than it's been perhaps?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's the closest I've ever seen it. But it's been close before. I don't mean to suggest it hasn't been. I worked closely with Australia when I was Secretary of Defense. Kim Beazley was my counterpart in those days. But there is a special relationship. Part of that is John Howard. We know him very well. I knew him before I ever became Vice President. I did work in Australia between my time as Secretary of Defense and when I became Vice President. And it also meant a lot that he was in Washington on 9/11, and that we've been in this global conflict from the very beginning.
Q: The new arrangements between Australia and the U.S. in areas like intelligence, do you think they'll outlive President Bush and Prime Minister Howard? Do you think there's a new institutional closeness between the two countries that will live on?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I hope so. I think the -- the bilateral ministerials we've done on a regular basis now for several years -- defense and foreign policy -- foreign ministers come together, sometimes in the U.S., sometimes here; the trilateral relationship we're talking about now with Japan as well as Australia and the U.S., I think those are institutional arrangements that hopefully will last beyond any one particular government.
Q: Sir, you've been Vice President a long time now --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It seems like it -- six years. (Laughter.)
Q: What's the highlight for you personally of being Vice President, your time in office?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: What's the highlight? I'm going to have to think about that when I get out of office and I have time to do it. Clearly, our administration has been dominated by the events of 9/11 and the aftermath. That has clearly become front and center in terms of our concerns and we spend our time, how we spend our resources. And I think in terms of accomplishments, the fact that we've defeated all attempts to strike the United States again for the last five years doesn't mean we won't be hit tomorrow. They're still out there trying hard, but it has been over five years now. And we have disrupted attempts to launch further attacks against the United States. And that's not been an accident -- a whole raft of strategies and policies behind that in terms of being aggressive, going overseas, going after the terrorists and terror-sponsored states; the measures we've taken at home to improve our security arrangements, to reorganize our intelligence capabilities, to establish our Terrorist Surveillance Program and financial tracking programs, other things that we've been able to do that have helped us, especially also work with allies to defeat the terrorists.
Q: Sir, are you concerned about the growth of anti-Americanism around the world, that this compromises the ability of free people to achieve the security ends that are necessary?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, there's a certain amount of that, I suppose. I think it probably waxes and wanes. Driving through Sydney is I notice a lot like driving through New York City. You get some waves and then you get some other waves. (Laughter.) And that goes with living in a democracy. And our best friends and allies are democracies and people have and are encouraged to express their opinions. And that's as it should be.
On the other hand, I think viewed from my perspective, that the United States has a unique role to play because we have capabilities nobody else has. And that sometimes places a burden on us. And we -- especially after 9/11 felt required to take action that not everybody agreed with. But then we had firsthand experience of the consequences of a failure to act. And so I think one of the results of that is some people who disagree with those actions or I think in some cases may hope that it's not necessary to be as aggressive as we've been take exception to the policies that we put in place. But I also like to remind them they weren't there in New York and Washington on 9/11 when we lost 3,000 one morning to 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters.
And the thing that we have to concern ourselves with these days is that the next group of terrorists that find their way into an American city might have a nuclear weapon or a biological agent to unleash.
Q: Do you think that's a realistic danger, sir?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think that's the biggest threat we face, and we have to do everything we can to guard against that. And that's our -- my job, the President's job, to see to it that we succeed at that. Sometimes we step on a few toes in the process, but I think it's necessary.
Q: Sir, looking back now you would say the strategic calculus, it was right to mount the Iraq operation?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q: The benefits outweigh the negatives?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do, indeed, believe that. I think 9/11 changed things to the point where we could no longer afford to ignore what was going on in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had started two wars. He'd violated I think some 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions. He was a designated state sponsor of terror. He was making payments -- $25,000 payments to families of suicide bombers. He had previously produced and used chemical weapons and biological agents and tried to produce nuclear weapons. He was a significant danger, and the world is better off now that he's dead and that there's a democratically elected government in his place in Baghdad and that the Iraqi people are, I think, well on the road to establishing a viable democracy.
I think long-term when we look back on this period of time, that will have been a remarkable achievement. We're not through yet. We've still got a lot of work yet to do, but I think given the scale of change that we're attempting here, that the fact that we're not finished yet shouldn't be all that surprising to anybody. And the consequences of our suddenly deciding that it's too hard and that we should pack it in and go home would be enormous, that we've got people especially in that part of the world -- hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of them -- have signed on in this global conflict with the United States, the backing and support of thousands of people who have signed on in the security services in Iraq, or the millions who voted, or men like Karzai, President of Afghanistan; or Musharraf in Pakistan, they didn't have to make the choices they've made; they made the choices to sign on with the United States and our allies to fight the extremists. If the United States were suddenly to decide Iraq's too tough and we're just going bag it and go home, I think you'd have devastating consequences for all of those people who are betting, in effect, that farm on their willingness to sign on and join with the U.S. in this struggle.
Q: And the same must apply to the U.S. allies, too, sir.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the more allies we have and the more committed they are to the effort, I think the quicker we can anticipate success. But I don't think we can afford to anticipate failure. And I think we have to continue to do whatever is necessary in order to get the right outcome in Iraq.
Q: Finally, sir, on North Korea. Do you have any reason to be optimistic that deal will hold given North Korea's history?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: One can always hope. The thing that's different this time is that we've had the six-party process. The Chinese have been actively engaged in the endeavor and the Japanese, as well the South Koreans and Russians and the U.S. That's significant because China has more trade and commerce with North Korea than anybody else. I think the North Korea nuclear test last fall sort of reinvigorated that whole process and forced all of the governments to look at and contemplate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Can I guarantee this will work? No. The group came to an agreement in September of '05, and in effect, what this does is it represents a first step in implementing that agreement.
We recognize North Korea has a history of violating international agreements and not living up to their commitments, but this is structured in such a way that benefits flow to them based upon their fulfilling their obligations. And we'll see.
Q: Yes, indeed. Sir, thank you very much, indeed.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you.
END 1:35 P.M. (Local)
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Greg Sheridan, the Australian Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/284384