Vice President Dick Cheney, warning against impulsive U.S. action in Iraq, says that whether the struggling nation backslides into a cycle of violence partly depends on how President-elect Barack Obama decides to pull out American forces.
"An irresponsible withdrawal now is exactly the wrong medicine," Cheney said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
During a wide-ranging discussion in his West Wing office, Cheney also said he sees no reason for President George W. Bush to pre-emptively pardon anyone at the CIA involved in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists.
"I don't have any reason to believe that anybody in the agency did anything illegal," he said.
Asked whether he believes the president needs to apologize for not foreseeing the nation's financial meltdown, Cheney said: "I don't think he needs to apologize. I think what he needed to do is take bold, aggressive action and he has. ... I don't think anybody saw it coming."
Cheney is leaving the White House after a government career spanning four decades, including stints as defense secretary, President Gerald R. Ford's chief of staff and a longtime congressman from Wyoming. In a broadcast interview earlier this week, the vice president dismissed as "urban legend" the notion that he played his role as second-in-command like a wizard, controlling the levers of the Bush presidency from behind the scenes.
Still, Cheney will be seen as one of if not the most influential vice presidents in U.S. history.
After Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, the 67-year-old Cheney plans to possibly write a book and spend time with his wife, Lynne, their two daughters and six grandchildren. He and his wife will split their time between their house in Virginia and their hometown of Casper, Wyo.
An avid angler, Cheney said the first river he wants to fish is the South Fork of the Snake River on the Wyoming-Idaho state line.
Strong-willed to the end, Cheney defended the Iraq war against critics, saying that while there is much work left to do, much progress has been made. Obama has said he wants all combat troops out of Iraq by the spring of 2010, leaving behind a residual force of trainers, air controllers, advisers and logistics soldiers until the end of the mission.
"I hear a lot of people, among our critics, who keep saying `Iraq's a mess, pull out.' Well, that's not true. It's not a mess," Cheney said. "We have made major progress. We have come close to achieving a significant proportion of our objectives."
Cheney said Obama's decision to keep Robert Gates on as defense secretary makes "some of us cautiously optimistic that the new administration is going to be more reasoned and responsible in terms of how they proceed, and not take action that would undermine the basic fundamental system that we put in place."
Looking back to the contentious national debate over the war, Cheney said statements from people like Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who in April 2007 said the "war is lost," had a big impact on the Iraqis because it reinforced a belief that the U.S. would bail out.
"If you look at it today, it doesn't look like we lost in Iraq," Cheney said. "Harry was wrong."
Cheney said Bush's decision to send in roughly 30,000 more troops sent a strong message, a reassurance, to the Iraqis that the U.S. was committed to stay the course. That, he said, dramatically changed the dynamics on the ground.
During the 24-minute interview, he vigorously defended the administration's terrorist-fighting policies.
Cheney said the administration rightly used programs to intercept communications of suspected terrorists and tough methods to interrogate high-value detainees. He also said he did not have any qualms about the reliability of intelligence obtained through waterboarding — an interrogation technique simulating drowning that was used on three top al-Qaida operatives in 2002 and 2003.
"It's been used with great discrimination by people who know what they're doing and has produced a lot of valuable information and intelligence," he said.
Obama has criticized interrogation practices he says amount to torture and also has promised to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On Iran, a nation he called one of the prime sponsors of terror in the world, Cheney said more sanctions likely will be needed to get the Iranians to stop enriching uranium. Uranium enriched to a low level is used to produce nuclear fuel, but further enrichment makes it suitable for use in nuclear weapons.
"They have continued to aggressively pursue nuclear weapons, in terms of their efforts to enrich uranium to produce fissile materials so they can build a bomb," Cheney said. "One of the things I worry about most is that linkage between a government that supports terror and terrorists on the one hand, and on the other hand is developing a number of deadlier of weapons. And I think that's a combination that is a scary prospect, and ought to be."
North Korea also will be a trouble spot that Obama will have to watch and address, he said.
North Korea continues to be a problem partly because it hasn't kept its commitment to provide a complete declaration of its nuclear activities, he said. In addition, Cheney said: "It looks like they have a continuing, ongoing program to produce highly enriched uranium" and "they helped the Syrians build a nuclear reactor."
In 2007, Israel bombed the Syrian reactor.