WASHINGTON - Seated behind a massive desk once used by World War I Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, Dick Cheney as secretary of defense fired generals he viewed as insubordinate or timid, pored over battle plans for Panama and the Persian Gulf, slashed weapons systems he saw as inadequate or too costly, and approved an ambitious plan for a national missile defense.
Few predicted such an aggressive, heavily engaged management style from the quietly intense Republican congressman from Wyoming, the possessor of a wry smile and a love of fly fishing.
Cheney - tapped by Republican George W. Bush to be his vice presidential running mate - never served his country in uniform, picking up student and parental deferments during the Vietnam War. Shortly before taking over as President George Bush's defense secretary in 1989, the lawmaker acknowledged that he had to brush up on military issues. But he was a quick study who became a decisive force at the Pentagon.
"I think he did a fine job at the Pentagon. Solid, able to make decisions," said Brent Scowcroft, who served as Bush's national security adviser and recommended Cheney to oversee the Pentagon's unwieldy bureaucracy and competing military services. "He provided just the kind of steady leadership the department needed."
Even liberal groups had kind words this week for Cheney's stewardship of the Defense Department. He was a "path-breaker" who adapted smoothly to a post-Cold War world by scaling back greatly the number of U.S. troops and cutting America's nuclear force, said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World.
Daniel Goure, an official in Cheney's Pentagon and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that as vice president in a pro-defense Bush administration, Cheney would likely provide a strong voice on military programs, but a skeptical one as well.
"He is not a giveaway guy to the defense industry," Goure said.
Cheney was tapped for the top Pentagon job after President Bush's initial choice, then-Texas Sen. John Tower, fell victim to charges of drinking and womanizing. Bush then turned to Cheney, an unpretentious conservative. Many wondered whether this "second choice" had the necessary skills to tackle the job.
"There was a concern he would be rolled by the military," Goure recalled.
Cheney was anything but a pushover. When the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Larry Welch, briefed Congress on a plan to upgrade the nation's intercontinental ballistic missiles, Cheney thought the general was out of line. Such discussions should be left to the president, Cheney said.
Only eight days in office, Cheney publicly rebuked the general. Soon after, Cheney relieved an Army general who expressed misgivings about plans to invade Panama and snatch dictator Manuel Noriega. And just before the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Welch's successor, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, told reporters what Cheney viewed as too much about war plans and target lists. The defense secretary called the general into his office and summarily relieved him.
Even the popular Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not above a dressing down by his boss. After Powell met with Bush to discuss the gulf war, Cheney took him aside and warned him against drifting into policy areas.
"Stick to military matters," Cheney told him, according to Powell's memoir, "My American Journey." Powell wrote, "He had made it clear I had taken liberty for license."
"He wanted to assert civilian authority," said former Army Secretary John O. Marsh, who had worked with Cheney in the Ford White House. "He got things done. He didn't procrastinate."
The Persian Gulf war
The defining episode of Cheney's four-year tenure as defense secretary was the Persian Gulf war. He spent countless hours studying maps and briefing papers, pressed his generals for more-innovative battle plans and wrangled more U.S. troops for the final showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Cheney proved even more aggressive than Powell, his top military adviser.
Powell initially pressed for economic sanctions against Hussein, whose troops had invaded Kuwait, or a "containment" policy that would leave the Iraqi dictator in the small gulf state. The allies could instead defend Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi attack, Powell reasoned. But Cheney was convinced that Hussein needed to be expelled from Kuwait. Scowcroft said Cheney "was always on the side of firmness."
Cheney was among those who doubted that a frontal assault against Iraqi forces made sense and urged a flanking maneuver, later to be refined into the celebrated and successful "Left Hook."
Cheney supported Bush's decision for an abrupt end to the war, though critics called it premature because many Iraqi troops and weapons survived, including units of the feared Republican Guard, not to mention Hussein himself. The defense secretary maintained that the allied war aims had been achieved.
Not afraid of cuts
Goure, the defense analyst, notes that even while Cheney was overseeing the gulf war, he was also managing the post-Cold War drawdown of U.S. forces. U.S. armed forces would be cut from 2.1 million to 1.4 million during Cheney's watch, though he wanted less drastic cuts, according to Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.
"He was by far the hawk in the Bush administration after the Cold War," said O'Hanlon, noting that Cheney advocated a 10 percent reduction in force rather than the more than 30 percent reduction that eventually came to pass.
Still, Cheney was not afraid of cutting programs he viewed as too expensive or only marginally more effective than existing weapons. He killed the A-12 Navy attack aircraft, a $57 billion program, because of cost overruns and eliminated the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor airplane, arguing that it was too expensive and no more survivable than the helicopter it was designed to replace. Cheney also came out against the Seawolf submarine.
The Seawolf was resurrected during the Clinton administration, which also approved construction of the Ospreys at a cost of $37 billion.
Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World said Cheney took some "unusually bold steps" in reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Under Cheney, the Defense Department cut the number of short-range nuclear weapons aboard Navy ships. It also ordered that a thousand nuclear warheads be taken off the hair-trigger alert that would allow them to be used immediately. Disarmament groups have vainly pushed the Clinton administration to continue this program.
While Cheney moved to cut nuclear weapons, he wanted a missile defense shield far more elaborate than the one proposed by the Clinton administration.
Henry Cooper, who headed missile defense efforts for Cheney, said the defense secretary approved a plan that included missile interceptors aboard Navy ships, a half-dozen land-based sites with upward of 800 missile interceptors and space-based "kamikaze" interceptors.
Those efforts were later scrubbed under the Clinton administration in favor of a limited defensive system that would include 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska. The president is scheduled to make a decision on deploying such a system this fall.
But Cooper and other missile defense experts are holding out hope that a Vice President Cheney would advocate broadening the program under a Bush administration. Bush has already called for an expanded missile defense effort.