The Commissar's in Town

At the very heart of U.S. Middle East policy, from the war in Iraq to pressure for regime change in Iran and Syria to the spread of free-market democracy in the region, sits the 39-year-old daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. Elizabeth “Liz” Cheney, appointed to her post in February 2005, has a tongue-twisting title: principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and coordinator for broader Middle East and North Africa initiatives. By all accounts, it is an enormously powerful post, and one for which she is uniquely unqualified.

During the past 15 months, Elizabeth Cheney has met with and bolstered a gaggle of Syrian exiles, often in tandem with John Hannah and David Wurmser, top officials in the Office of the Vice President (OVP); has pressed hard for money to accelerate the administration's ever more overt campaign for forced regime change in both Damascus and Teheran; and has overseen an increasingly discredited push for American-inspired democratic reform from Morocco to Iran. With the unspoken support of her father, Cheney has kept a hawk's eye on Iraq policy within the department, intimidating opponents of the neoconservative axis within the administration. And, less visibly, according to former officials who've worked with her, she has made her influence felt in choosing officials, selecting (or blocking) the appointment of ambassadors and other foreign service officers, and weighing in on other bureaucratic battles at the department.

Now, according to the Financial Times of London, Cheney is coordinating the work of a new entity called the Iran-Syria Operations Group. The unit was established “to plot a more aggressive democracy promotion strategy for those two ‘rogue' states,” reported the Times. In February, the State Department announced that Cheney would oversee a $5 million program to “accelerate the work of reformers in Syria,” providing grants of up to $1 million each to Syrian dissidents. And in the current fiscal year, she will oversee a similar, $7 million regime-change grant program for Iran, though funding for that effort is expected to grow to at least $85 million soon, to include both a propaganda program and support to Iranian opposition groups.

“She came in knowing very little about the Middle East,” says Marina S. Ottaway, senior associate and co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has worked with Liz Cheney on democratic reform issues. “She had a mandate to do democracy promotion, but she had very little familiarity with the subject. … They deliberately picked a person who was not a Middle East specialist, so that the conventional wisdom, well, let me rephrase, so that real, actual knowledge of the issues in the region wouldn't interfere with policy.”

Liz Cheney catapulted into her current job after a rather undistinguished career that leapfrogged from public to private life and back again. In her early 20s, she did a stint at the State Department while her father was secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and then headed to law school at the University of Chicago and worked for Armitage Associates, a firm run by Richard Armitage. As an attorney, she worked for the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, and served briefly as a U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) officer in Hungary and Poland. Her Middle East experience was, well, limited.

Asked about Liz's familiarity with the Middle East, a former staffer at the Middle East Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says that she dabbled in the Institute's Arabic language classes. “And she'd come to our annual conference,” she said. That's it.

That was, however, apparently enough to get her named deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) in 2002.

* * *

In an administration in which policy toward Iraq and the Middle East was mostly guided by know-nothings and the inexperienced, perhaps it isn't surprising that Liz Cheney got herself named to a top position at Near Eastern Affairs. How, exactly, she ended up at NEA in the first place is something of a mystery, although no one interviewed doubted that it was at the behest of the vice president. One former deputy assistant secretary at NEA said that the bureau was offered the choice of either Liz Cheney or Danielle Pletka, a neoconservative hard-liner who is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka, a sharp-elbowed insider who helped write the Iraq Liberation Act in the 1990s, was reportedly seen by Secretary of State Colin Powell and NEA as the greater of two evils, and so Cheney got the job.

During the preparations for the Iraq War, Cheney had a back seat at NEA, with a portfolio covering Middle East economic issues, including oil. However, according to insiders, her real importance was to serve as an ace-in-the-hole at the State Department for the vice president's office. Her presence had a sobering effect on many of the department's Arabists, most of whom were known as opponents of the war and were considered suspect by neoconservatives. “All during that year, you had the vice president's daughter sitting there at State Department meetings,” says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Says another former U.S. ambassador to several key Middle East countries otherwise known for his tough-minded ability to stand up to Arab strongmen: “I would find it confining, if not intimidating.”

In 2003, she left the State Department to take a role in the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and to give birth to her fourth child. (Her husband is Philip Perry, general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security.) But after the election, in 2005, she was back -- this time with an important, and telling, promotion to the far more senior post of principal deputy assistant secretary, making her the No. 2 official on Middle East policy. Known by its acronym, PDAS (pronounced “pee-dass”), it is a bureaucratic post known for its power inside NEA. It was an appointment that certainly got the attention of the State Department's Middle East hands.

“There has always been a political appointee in every bureau at State,” says Ambassador Philip Wilcox, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. But usually the political appointee, who serves as a sort of commissar, would be placed in a low rank within NEA, he says. “The idea that the pdas would be that political appointee is just unprecedented, since she serves as the alter ego of the assistant secretary.”

Wayne White, who served as deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and who headed that unit's Iraq team during the war, left the State Department in 2005. “The thing we all said among us, in chit chat, when she moved up to be PDAS after being the deputy assistant secretary, was, ‘Ah, now we see the plan,'” he says. “First, she gets her training wheels as deputy assistant secretary … where she'd get softer assignments, sort of training, which happens to people in that position who don't have a Middle East background, and she doesn't -- and then boom! right up to PDAS … She is in a position to stop anything from going forward -- as in the form of a memo, a recommendation -- that she pretty much wants.”

In her job as PDAS, Cheney is responsible for nearly all of the management and administration of the bureau, says White. “In one way, the PDAS is like Stalin in the early 1920s communist party, controlling personnel, able to promote, not promote, put people in key positions. This is an extremely powerful position.”

David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for NEA, is nominally Liz Cheney's boss. But her connection to her father, plus her pipelines directly up to more senior State Department officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, make it easy for her to eclipse Welch. (Like Armitage, who also served as a top State Department official for George W. Bush, Zoellick is a signatory to the statements of the Project for a New American Century in the 1990s, which charted the administration's bellicose course.) “David Welch is in an impossible position on anything she takes an interest in,” says a former top NEA official. “And she takes an interest in the big issues -- Iraq, Iran, and so on. They have to be very careful, if they want to do anything that protects the national interest, because it has to coincide with what Liz Cheney thinks is in the national interest.” One of the few reporters in Washington to look into Liz Cheney's role at the State Department, Timothy Phelps of Long Island's Newsday, reported in April that she operates what is essentially a “shadow Middle East policy” against the more mainstream policy promoted by Welch, typical of the neoconservative versus realist divisions that have plagued the Bush administration since 2001.

Cheney has not shied away from throwing her weight around. During her frequent trips to the Middle East, she often operates independently of the department and of the U.S. ambassador in whatever country she is visiting. She has been known to insist on seeing a head of state without inviting the American ambassador to accompany her, in violation of protocol, often threatening the ambassador with the power of her contacts. On at least one occasion, however, an ambassador called her bluff. “Liz Cheney comes out to this country, and she tells the ambassador -- and she doesn't outrank him -- she tells the ambassador, ‘You're not going in the meeting with me,'” recalls Larry Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's assistant during his tenure as secretary of state. “And he says, ‘I'm sorry, I'm going in the meeting with you. You're not going into a meeting with the head of state without me.' And she says, ‘Nope -- would you like a telephone call?'” In this case, says Wilkerson, the department's bosses backed up their ambassador, who accompanied a chastened Cheney into the meeting. But that has not always been the case. “It's not just that she is imperious in dealing with our ambassadors,” notes a corporate lobbyist who is deeply involved in Middle East policy. “She's got her own foreign policy, her own agenda, and so of course she wouldn't want the ambassador to know what she is talking about when she meets a head of state.”

* * *

Soon after her return to the State Department in March 2005, Liz Cheney made news when she convened a controversial meeting with a handful of exiled Syrian activists to talk about regime change in Damascus. Leading the pack at the time was Farid al-Ghadry, a paradoxically pro-Israeli Syrian who's maintained ties to neoconservatives in Washington and who is close to Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Middle East affairs for the Hudson Institute. According to Arab sources, it was Meyrav Wurmser who helped to arrange al-Ghadry's tête-à-tête with Liz Cheney, Hannah, and other Bush administration officials.

Al-Ghadry, a Virginia businessman who founded the Reform Party of Syria, is widely seen in Arab circles as a lightweight with no credibility inside Syria. Mourhaf Jouejati, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on Syrian politics, calls al-Ghadry a “mini-me of Ahmed Chalabi,” adding that Liz Cheney, Hannah, and the Wurmsers “are the backbone for Farid Ghadry's movement. The question is, are they just seeking leverage with Syria, or is it a serious option? If it is the latter, I would be scared, because that means that they don't know what they are doing.” One of the Syrians who took part in the meeting with Cheney and Hannah is Najib Ghadbian, an activist, author, and professor at the University of Arkansas. “Ghadry doesn't have much following inside Syria,” Ghadbian admits. “Why are they behind him so much? Maybe they are following the Iraqi model, but al-Ghadry doesn't even have the clout of Chalabi.” Perhaps another reason that al-Ghadry had the inside track with Cheney, Hannah, and Wurmser is that he is a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who has spoken at meetings of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank whose board of advisers includes Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and James Woolsey. (Since the meeting with Cheney a year ago, al-Ghadry has lost favor even in Syrian exile circles. A new group, calling itself the Syrian National Council, has emerged, elbowing al-Ghadry out of a leading role.)

Since then, and with the emergence of the reported Iran-Syria Operations Group, Liz Cheney has taken a leading role in the Bush administration's campaign for regime change in both countries. While continuing to press Syria, the State Department has launched a campaign against Iran, separately from any military confrontation being worked on at the Pentagon. “It looks so déjà vu,” says Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who compares the effort to America's actions before war in Iraq. In addition to pressing the United Nations to impose tough new sanctions against Iran, Liz Cheney is coordinating an effort to rouse Iranian exiles to spark revolution inside the country. Besides seeking $75 million in additional funds for anti-Tehran activities, the State Department has created a brand new Office of Iranian Affairs, which sounds suspiciously like the Defense Department's Office of Special Plans that was set up to coordinate pre-war planning for Iraq. And, according to a recent State Department planning document, the United States is setting up anti-Iranian intelligence and mobilization centers in Dubai, Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, London, and Baku to work with “Iranian expatriate communities.”

Having set into motion much of this activity, Liz Cheney's role in once again up in the air. Many at the State Department may breathe a sigh of relief this summer, when Cheney will once again likely take a leave of absence for the birth of her fifth child, expected in July. Even so, she will remain part of her father's inner circle. And as the United States lurches toward a confrontation with Iran -- October Surprise anyone? -- Liz and Dick will be hand in hand.

Robert Dreyfuss is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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