Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Obama vs. Cheney: Is There A Middle Ground When It Comes to America’s War on Terror?

Posted by proliferationpresswm on May 21, 2009

The following is an opinion piece that reviews and analyzes the speeches made today by President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney. For a quick review of the various claims in each speech, check this Politico article. David Biespiel offers excellent commentary on this same topic.

Talk about night and day. President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney went at it today, and there dueling speeches framed the debate over America’s national security.

After adsorbing the speeches, it’s hard not to be left wondering just why Republicans see national security as their most potent weapon against President Obama. And that has nothing to do with the messenger, but rather the message itself.

Cheney, speaking at AEI, mounted an impassioned and absolutist defense of all actions undertaken by the Bush administration in the war against terror. He sought to portray the Obama administration’s current approach to national security as weak-kneed, hypocritical and politically self-serving.

Cheney brought back the pre- and post-9-11 framework that dominated the Bush White House. He implicitly argued that the Obama administration—by junking the terms ‘war on terror’ and ‘enemy combatant’  and stopping the use of advanced interrogation techniques and shutting down GITMO—put forward a “boarder misconception” of the threats that face America.

But what’s most notable in Cheney’s polemic is its unflinching refusal to differentiate between the various aspects of Bush-era national security:

So we’re left to draw one of two conclusions – and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years, and of the policies necessary to protect America for years to come.

Cheney’s dividing line is not only false, but dangerous. A reading of Cheney’s speech reveals “comprehensive strategy” to mean  all the following as necessary parts of defending the United States from terrorism:

A. The war in Afghanistan. No one would argue against this; yet, one may wonder why the Bush administration failed for years ensure the resources required for success. But in all fairness, Cheney did give Obama credit for redoubling American efforts in Afghanistan.

B. The war in Iraq. Yes, Dick Cheney defends this war on the grounds of battling terrorism. He sneaks in mention of  Saddam’s Hussein’s “known ties to Midest terrorists” while discussing the threats America faed after 9-11. Is this still really a question?

C. Advanced Interrogation Methods. Here Cheney devotes his most attention: arguing that the still-unreleased CIA memos would show just how valuable these limited programs were. And he continues to argue that Obama’s selective release detailing these practices hurts American security. To these charges, two questions: A) Just because advanced interrogation methods worked, does that mean they were the only way forward—let alone were they justified in a way that made them legally unsustainable? B) Did releasing memos detailing (now prohibited) practices already admitted to by the Bush administration really teach current or future terrorists something new? (Answer: No.)

D. GITMO. Here Cheney focuses on the most inane aspect of this important security debate. Does he discuss the untenable legal foundation GITMO was found on? No. Does Cheney concede that mistakes were made by is administration’s ad hoc treatment of the issue—leading to the release of prisoners who then continued to actively battle the United States under his watch? No. Or how about how GITMO became a symbol for an administration wanting wishing to act above the law and our nation’s system of checks-and-balances ? No. Instead he states the following:

Attorney General Holder and others have admitted that the United States will be compelled to accept a number of terrorists here, in the homeland, and it has even been suggested US taxpayer dollars will be used to support them. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the President’s own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating to their states, these Democrats chose instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war supplemental.

On the point of US taxpayer dollars being used to “support” former GITMO detainees: American tax dollars already “support” terrorists held in GITMO. Unless Dick Cheney is arguing to cease funding GITMO, this seems a non-issue. Second, the suggestion that suspected terrorists cannot be held on American soil appears little more than politically convenient fear-mongering. Why can America not hold dangerous terrorists on American soil? We do now.  And we already have facilities specifically designed for this very purpose.

One can understand why the image of 9-11 burns so brightly for Dick Cheney. Not only was he Vice President during the attacks, but was only a month latter sent to a secret location to head-up a secret, back-up federal government. Why? The CIA feared an imminent nuclear attack on New York City. Those were scary times, and we still live in them.

What is not comprehensible is the former Vice President’s refusal to admit that not every policy enacted after 9-11 actually served to prevent future terrorist attacks. And his insistence that anyone who voices this position as forgetting 9-11 is ludicrous.

Obama’s speech: Finding A Middle-Ground Between Security and Transparency

Against this black-and-white approach to the war on terror, Obama offered a full-throated defense of his administration’s actions.

In discussing the use of advanced interrogation methods, Obama staked his credibility on his belief these tactics—whatever their value—caused more harm than good for the United States. Now this might be an endlessly debated question. But the President has decided. While some may disagree, Obama has staked his credibility as commander-in-chief on this issue. And it seems reasonable to believe he has done so because there are other avenues through which to obtain this information that do not carry the dangerous spill-over effects of advanced interrogation techniques.

On GITMO, Obama pitched a nuanced and comprehensive plan. The boiled-down version? Those detainees who cannot be released, transfered to other countries, or brought before federal court or military tribunals will face continued detainment. The crucial difference is this: clear standards will be created and periodic reviews made as to why these individuals should be detained and for what duration. Besides the question of where in the US these individuals should be placed—an inane, if publicly potent issue— one may be left wondering what exactly Cheney has against this move.

Unless Cheney truly believes that only the executive branch, not the US court system or US Congress, can be trusted with issues of national security. And even then, it seems that crafting standards might be needed if a President is elected who doesn’t follow Cheney’s personal viewpoint. (Perhaps this is something the Bush-Cheney White House should have done themselves)

Not only are suspected terrorists either facing justice or being detained under the Obama approach, checks-and-balances will be instituted that ensure careful decision-making. Such careful decision-making probably would have avoided the Bush-Cheney administration’s earlier and careless release of GITMO detainees.

But the most telling difference in Obama’s speech was its ability to break-out of Cheney’s binary world-view. In Cheney’s post 9-11 framework extreme actions were and still are necessary to defend the United States. If mistakes happen while prusuing this mission, they are not mistakes. Any difference of opinion must necessarily equate to a less safe America.

Obama argued for a middle-ground. A middle-ground that still recognizes America is at war and must protect itself, but also accepts that not every action considered or undertaken in this mission inherently effective. Closing GITMO and transferring prisoners to American soil does not endanger American security. And letting detainees languish in GITMO in the face of legal challenges amounts to the President picking and choosing what laws to apply. While one can argue what value GITMO is to terrorist recruiters, one pernicious truth remains: America’s system of laws in undermined while yielding no added security to American citizens.

Conclusion: Is This Really the Rallying Cry of The Right?

If conservatives really wish to base their foreign policy on maintaining GITMO and using advanced interrogation techniques, they have made themselves a party of the past. Yes, terrorists will continue to be detained and interrogated. But it’s virtually assured that any valuable information from these suspected terrorists can be obtained through other means. Furthermore, there’s no rational basis to fear placing any such dangerous individuals in super-max prisons in the United States–prisons developed actually for this purpose.

From Obama Americans heard a confident president defending his conception of American foreign policy and homeland security. In so doing, he acknowledged that these questions were difficult and that there were no easy answers. And, indeed, his plan for GITMO prisoners detainees modifies, but does not fundamentally reverse the Bush-era view on detention. Furthermore, Obama banned enhanced interrogation techniques, but has reserved the power to bring them back. But even if his approach is not perfect, he is having an open discussion over how America should protect itself and attempting to create clear and public standards for American actions.

Cheney preferred to defend every action of the Bush administration, admitting no error. By lumping all Bush-era national security decisions together and refusing to acknowledge the inherent difficulties of maintaining specific policies his White House promulgated, Cheney substituted real discussion for rhetorical flash–answers for partisan point-making.

This is not to say Obama shyed away from partisan notes himself. Or that every decision Obama has made or will make will be 100 percent correct. But in showing a willingness to reveal and discuss America’s security policies, Obama had already won. Cheney argued for a system where the ‘right’ President should always be trusted and allowed to conceal their administration’s actions. (Cheney has no answer for what contingency there is against poor executive decisions.) Obama offered a, however imperfect, conception of national security where standards are known and executive power is subject to review.

The winning argument is clear. It’s the one that actually makes sense.

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