WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney is reaching out to moderate Arab leaders for help in bringing stability to Iraq, a mission that will include pleas for postwar support for minority party Sunnis.
Cheney departs Tuesday on a weeklong mission to the Middle East, right after a visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
While Rice's trip had a wide-ranging agenda that included other tensions in the region, administration officials said Cheney would focus largely on the next steps in Iraq.
Cheney's first stop will be Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Other announced stops include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Cheney also will visit the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf.
What can Cheney bring to the region that Rice couldn't?
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the trip publicly, said President Bush asked Cheney to go because of his close ties with leaders in each of the four countries.
But some Mideast experts outside the administration suggested that Cheney's visit also might be an attempt to try to clear up what might be viewed as mixed messages from Rice by some leaders in the region.
"Some of these people wonder if Condi Rice really speaks for the president when she decides she's going to talk to the Syrians, or when she agrees to go to a conference that includes the Iranians," said David Mack, a retired diplomat who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and a consultant to the bipartisan Iraq Study group.
"They wonder if the president is going to pull out the rug from under her. The vice president, who is generally identified as having opposed a lot of the things that we've been increasingly doing, can assure them that she speaks for the president as well," said Mack, now vice president of the Middle East Institute, a group devoted to fostering knowledge of the region.
Rice was in the neighborhood attending an international conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, attended by representatives of both Syria and Iran. She met on the sidelines for 30 minutes with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, but had no face-to-face contact with the Iranian foreign secretary.
In particular, the senior administration official said, Cheney will appeal to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to use their influence to help rein in Sunni violence against Shiites in Iraq as well as charting ways to better protect Sunnis from violence at the hands of militant Shiites.
With less than two years left in the Bush-Cheney administration, the vice president has retained close ties to the region.
He got to know many leaders as defense secretary to the elder President Bush in the first Gulf War, then nurtured those relationships as chief executive officer of Halliburton, the oil-services company now in the process of moving many of its operations from Houston to Dubai in the UAE. Halliburton has many oil-related ties to the region, then and now.
In part, Bush is retracing some of the steps of a March 2002 tour of the Middle East aimed at giving Arab states a heads up on possible U.S. military action against Iraq.
Cheney's trip will build on Rice's visit to the region, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "We have challenges in the region, and it's important that everyone be working together in order to solve them," she said.
But Cheney's influence there is waning, suggested Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on Mideast issues to both Republican and Democratic administrations.
"No visit by Dick Cheney with 18 months to go in the Bush administration can serve to either supplement or somehow make policies ... any more effective," said the former career diplomat. "I spent 25 years going on trips with secretaries of states and presidents, and I'll tell you one thing: One trip doesn't make much of a dent, even if the circumstances weren't as grim as they are."
No longer is the United States seen as "tough, powerful and credible," said Miller. "We are perceived to be failing. And, at some point, those leaders out there — personal relations with Cheney notwithstanding — are going to begin to make their own plans for the end of the Bush administration."
On Cheney's 2002 tour — which also included stops in Israel, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey — he found little support for an invasion of Iraq and considerable concern among Arab leaders that the U.S. wasn't doing more to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Cheney went to Saudi Arabia in November 2006 for private talks with King Abdullah.
Judith Kipper, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, said she thinks Iran may end up trumping other items on Cheney's agenda.
"I do think people in the region are nervous. Iraq is disintegrating. And in the cold war of words between Iran and the U.S., the United States is going back and forth in a way that could become a miscalculation, a misstep," she said.
Still, while Cheney "is not the favorite U.S. politician out there," his visit can help address Arab-state complaints that the United States does not consult enough with them, Kipper said, adding that "the vice president always has more clout than any secretary in the Cabinet."