Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he doesn’t think the “Arab Spring” will significantly cut the flow of oil to world markets, but the Middle East is far different when he sought cooperation for the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
Cheney and his wife, Lynne, talked about his time in office, U.S. foreign policy and a forthcoming book from the couple before hundreds of attendees at a KPMG Global Energy Institute event at the InterContinental Hotel in Houston on Wednesday.
Cheney has made relatively few public speeches since leaving office at the beginning of 2009. In May 2009 he spoke to the American Enterprise Institute, largely as a rebuttal to President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and release documents about the Bush administration’s torture policies.
His talk in Houston was relatively light on new insights or details, as he first fielded questions from his wife and then from the audience.
Cheney served as a Congressman from Wyoming and Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush before serving as Chairman and CEO of oilfield service giant Halliburton and then as Vice President in George W. Bush’s administration.
On Wednesday he said his Pentagon post was his favorite job, despite a mishap on his first day in office.
Cheney started work on a Saturday in March 1989 and was expected at the White House for a meeting with the elder Bush. He entered his private elevator at the Pentagon to travel down to the garage, but accidentally got off on a floor below the garage.
There were no buttons to call the elevator back to that floor, he said, so he had to wander around the basement looking for a way out. When he finally did get out he decided to just act as if he meant to take that long.
“I figured the best thing was to act like I knew what I was doing,” he said. “So I tightened my tie, walked out and got into the limousine. No one ever had the nerve ask me where I had been. It was a very valuable lesson to learn -– act like you know what you’re doing.”
Cheney said one of his toughest times in office was during a memorial service for the relatively few American soldiers killed during Operation Desert Storm, the operation that liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.
In particularly he remembered a young mother who had lost her husband, sitting in the front row of the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery with her young daughter in her lap.
The other challenging day was on Sept. 11, 2001 when he sat in an underground bunker at the White House watching the tower going down “knowing that as those towers collapsed literally thousands of people were losing their lives, at that moment, people who were totally innocent, who hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Cheney opined on the possible impact on the energy sector of the “Arab Spring” protests, saying the issues in each country are very different from each other and can’t be generalized.
Ultimately, however, he thinks the economic importance of oil in the region means no matter who is in charge it will continue to flow to world markets.
“While it may get shaky from time to time, I don’t’ think there’s likely to be a significant period of time which that flow of enormously important resource would be shut down,” Cheney said. “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think it’s a pretty safe proposition.”
He noted how in the build-up to the first Gulf War he visited many of the countries in the Middle East to get access to bases, airplane over-flight rights, troop commitments and other agreements to prepare for the invasion.
“I never got turned down, anywhere I went,” Cheney said. “But If I had to go back tomorrow I’m not sure where I’d start. There are a couple of places where you could go back, but I think the ferment and turmoil is sufficient enough and the politics scary enough inside those counties that there are not many leaders who would could sit down for a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Defense and agree to a whole bunch of things without putting at risk their own political future.”
Cheney pointed to Iraq as a new democracy that has seen change for the better since the Gulf War, saying it used to be a nation invading its neighbors “developing WMDs and supporting terrorism.”
One audience member asked if Cheney’s recollection of events matched those President George W. Bush wrote about in his book Decision Points, giving Cheney pause.
“Um, buy my book?” he suggested to laughs.
Cheney said there will likely be some differences in how the two men saw particular events, including things the president saw as positive outcomes that Cheney sees as negatives.
In answer to a question about tax subsidies for renewable energy, Cheney said he’s not opposed to renewable energy or conservation “… contrary to what people might accuse me of,” he said. “But I think ultimately our economy is built on conventional sources of energy. We’ve spent 100 years building one that runs on oil, natural gas, coal and uranium.”
Cheney also warned about the dangers of the national debt and the Obama administration’s spending.
“I worship the ground the Paul Ryan walks on,” he said referring to the Republican Congressman from Wisconsin. “I hope he doesn’t run for president because that would ruin a good man who has a lot of work to do.”
Cheney shared recollections of unrest in Washington after Martin Luther King’s assassination and said the inauguration of the first African-America president of the U.S. was “tremendously moving” to him, but added that he thinks Obama has “a more radical philosophy than I’m comfortable with.”
Cheney also recounted controversy over his links to the energy industry during his vice presidency.
He noted the measures he took to sever ties from Halliburton, including selling all his stock and setting up a special trust for options that didn’t vest until later.
He specified three charities in advance to receive any profits from those sales, including the University of Wyoming, the George Washington University Hospital “that helped save my life a time or two,” and a program to provide scholarships for inner-city children in Washington, D.C., to go to private schools. Those donations totaled $8 million.
Cheney said he had deferred some of his Halliburton compensation to be paid for later years during his term in office, but he took out an insurance policy on those funds so that he didn’t have a vested interest in the company’s success.
“I think I saw Dave Lesar, my successor, once in 8 years,” Cheney said. “I didn’t want to taint the company by going near it.”
Democrats went to great lengths to say Cheney continued to profit from Halliburton, Cheney said. He described a run-in he had on the Senate floor with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahey right after Leahey had spoken with a reporter and accused Cheney of “nefarious deeds” with Halliburton.
“Pat came over to me and put his arm around me and treated me like his long-lost brother,” Cheney said. “At that point I told him what he could do with himself.”
When that exchange happened, all the senators standing nearby “headed for the exits.”
Cheney said he met with many people in the energy industry whom he knew well, but he considered “one of the best endorsements I got” the Supreme Court Decision upholding his refusal to release their names or the names of the companies they worked for.