Condoleezza Rice has announced (WaPo, NYT) that the United States will sit down at a table with Iran and Syria, however multilaterally and under someone else’s aegis (if the government of Iraq qualifies as truly independent). The speculation begins that she could do this only because Vice President Cheney is out of the country (PHK in WhirledView Choice, Steve Clemons and others whose links I can’t find just now).
Part of my background is in chemical reaction mechanisms, the step-by-step analysis of how chemistry takes place, so please bear with me as I try to work this out, step by step.
Vice President Cheney said last week that “all options are still on the table.” This is an unexceptionable formula. No president ever takes any option off the table until treaties are signed. It’s rather a stupid question for reporters to ask, particularly knowing what this Vice President and President are likely to answer. But the Vice President repeated the formulation several times on his trip, so he was at least adamant and possibly sending a signal. Whether that signal was to other members of the administration,
But if Cheney is the power behind the no-negotiations-with-evildoers stand, then why would he go on a trip that would allow the mice to play? Certainly he has left minions carefully placed in the agencies who could, admittedly less effectively, block such nonsense. If he truly wanted to block this move, he’d stick at home. It’s possible that the President gave him some urgent messages to carry to the heads of state he’s visiting, like the schedule for the nuclear strikes on Iran, but that would seem to undercut this latest move, or vice versa.
Is it that, if Cheney were in town, he could barge into the President’s office as Rice is leaving with the press release in hand and talk the President into changing his mind? Is it that he would pull the strings to block actions at lower levels so that the putative Iranian weapons in Iraq would trump the Iraq government’s desire to talk to its neighbors? The second is plausible, given the reports of Cheney’s people in the agencies. The first suggests that the President decides on the basis of the last person he talked to, a phenomenon not unknown in weak leaders.
It’s easy to assume that Cheney is, to some degree, giving the President orders. But only if you make that assumption, along with the assumption that big decisions like this are made on the spur of the moment, can you conclude that the announcement of a conference including the US, Syria and Iran can take place only when Cheney is out of the country.
There is a lot of evidence supporting both of those assumptions. However, if they are accurate, Cheney would know better than to leave the country. So I remain just a bit agnostic on these points and just a bit puzzled as to how decisions actually are made in this administration.