As the Iraq drama unfolds, Mr. Cheney has become the war counselor with the lowest profile but the highest credibility with Mr. Bush. Repeatedly, he has defined the bottom line for U.S. policy: Mr. Hussein's prompt removal from power, with or without a broad international coalition.
Messrs. Bush and Cheney have shared that goal since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made vivid the threat posed by anti-American terrorists who might obtain weapons of mass destruction. Before then, the administration had been content to contain Mr. Hussein. A debate over whether to join with Iraqi exiles in a renewed push for regime change languished inside the State Department. Mr. Bush never really addressed the question directly, for it never was pushed up to him.
Even after Sept. 11, the White House initially postponed its move toward regime change to keep focused on its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. "We've got Saddam Hussein bottled up for now," Mr. Cheney said at the time.
But with little public notice, Mr. Cheney began working on the Iraq issue with a new dedication. He quietly sought out experts on the politics and culture of the country. He reached out to Iraqi exiles such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile whose family led the country decades ago and who seeks to lead a post-Hussein Iraq. And he began hosting a series of small dinner parties -- some at his elegant official residence in Washington and others at the "undisclosed locations" where he'd been secluded for security reasons -- to share ideas with anti-Hussein intellectuals such as Princeton University scholar Bernard Lewis, Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami and conservative author Victor David Hanson.
The hard line struck at these gatherings provided intellectual support for Mr. Bush's own instincts. As the defense secretary in the first Bush administration, which closed the first Persian Gulf War without removing Mr. Hussein from power, Mr. Cheney had been called on for years to account for that decision. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld adopted a wicked grin once when he prodded the vice president to admit to a crowded room of Pentagon employees that "not going to Baghdad" was one decision he regretted from his stint as Pentagon chief. "Yeah, I guess you're right," the vice president responded.
State Department and CIA officials mistrust the wealthy, American-educated Mr. Chalabi, who was convicted in a Jordanian banking scandal more than a decade ago. But Mr. Cheney and his senior staff have remained stubborn advocates of Mr. Chalabi, a man they first got to know in the mid-1990s at the barbecues and golf games held at private seminars hosted by groups such as the Aspen Institute.
The last act of the diplomatic endgame has remained a subject for debate into its final hours. Administration officials say Mr. Powell doesn't want to force a Security Council vote that faces certain defeat, fearing long-term damage to the U.N. and American alliances. Mr. Cheney and his allies would be happy to force Security Council members to "show their cards," as Mr. Bush put it in a recent news conference.
He is also content to endure the barbs of world opinion to achieve the goal he shares with the president. Noting his own Western heritage, Mr. Cheney said on NBC Sunday that "the notion that the president is a cowboy ... is not necessarily a bad idea. He cuts to the chase ... . The leaders who will set the world, if you will, on a new course, deal effectively with these kinds of threats we've never faced before, will be somebody exactly like President Bush."
"Showing their cards"? "Cowboys"?
Enough with the manly metaphors. These are not rough-and-tumble cowpunchers. They are among the most insular and coddled men this country has ever produced, and Cheney's particular brand of partisan "cartel-capitalist" arrogance and incompetence, driven by insatiable industrial appetites, ranks among the most disgusting displays of official behavior in American history.