The Commissar's in Town: Very Little Happens at State regarding the Middle East without the Knowledge and Approval of Cheney-Not Dick, but Liz, His Powerful, Secretive Daughter

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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. …