Cheney also offered subdued comments about John Murtha, the respected Democratic congressman who set off a partisan firestorm when he called last week for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"I disagree with Jack, but he's a good man, a Marine, a patriot," said Cheney in an address to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"No one is saying we should not be having this discussion," Cheney said, calling debate "the essence of democracy."
At the same time, Cheney pressed the administration's high-voltage attack on war critics, particularly Senate Democrats who voted in October 2002 to give Mr. Bush authority to go to war in Iraq and who now oppose his policy, calling them "dishonest and reprehensible."
"The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight. But any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false," Cheney said.
As to proposals for a rapid pullout of U.S. troops, Cheney said, "It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." Nearly 160,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.
Cheney ticked off a long list of terrorist attacks on American interests going back more than the two decades that preceded the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and earlier ones in Beirut, Saudi Arabia and Africa.
"Now they're making a stand in Iraq, testing our resolve, trying to intimidate the United States into abandoning our friends and permitting the overthrow of this new Middle Eastern democracy," Cheney said.
On Monday, Murtha defended his call to get out of Iraq, saying he was reflecting Americans' sentiment.
"The public turned against this war before I said it," Murtha said, speaking in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa. "The public is emotionally tied into finding a solution to this thing, and that's what I hope this administration is going to find out."
The Iraq debate turned more vitriolic in recent days, with the Senate voting overwhelmingly to require fuller reporting by the administration on progress, and by Murtha's proposal. That brought sharp criticism from the White House and led to a tumultuous late-night House floor fight when the GOP leaders forced a vote on an immediate pullout measure in hopes of trapping Democrats. It was rejected 403-3.
Meanwhile, troop levels will remain at their present levels as Iraqis prepare for elections Dec. 15, and will return to a baseline strength of 130,000 when the commanders there determine that conditions on the ground warrant it, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Sunday.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill called Murtha's position one of abandonment and surrender and suggested that the decorated Marine Corps veteran and like-minded politicians were acting cowardly.
The administration has been toning down its criticism of Murtha since White House spokesman Scott McClellan derided him last week as an ultraliberal, likening him to activist far-left filmmaker Michael Moore.
Mr. Bush, who was returning Monday from a tour of Asia, praised Murtha as "a fine man" and said that disagreeing with the administration was not unpatriotic.
Rumsfeld, appearing on the Sunday morning news shows, acknowledged that questions about war ought to be debated, but he also warned that words have consequences for both the insurgents in Iraq and the U.S. troops opposing them.
"The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder: 'Maybe all we have to do is wait and we'll win. We can't win militarily.' They know that. The battle is here in the United States," Rumsfeld said on "Fox News Sunday."