It was almost like an episode from Bloggingheads.tv. On the one side was President Obama speaking on national security in a measured and statesmanlike way. On the other side was former vice-president Dick Cheney trying to speak on national security in a measured and statesmanlike way.
It wasn't even close. Obama deftly wove his own personal saga and faith in American values with its future. His indictment of the Bush administration wasn't something that Obama wanted to deliver--as he made it clear, he wants to move on. Cheney's campaign to hail his own record forced Obama to recount, once more, why it was that the Bush administration besmirched America's Constitution, why "enhanced interrogation" didn't enhance American security but directly jeopardized it.
Once again, Cheney, by contrast, offered a deceptively consoling vision of an America that can't lose its moral bearings because any measures that are deemed necessary to protect it are, by definition, just and righteous. Why is anyone even listening to him? The failure of the Bush administration's foreign policy has been patently obvious--a morass in Iraq, a resurgent insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan--note that Obama did not include Iraq as part of the struggle against terrorism--and the collapse of American standing around the globe.
But since even Democratic Senators seem to be cowering before the idea of shuttering Guantanamo, it's worth briefly examining Cheney's modus operandi once again. In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, which the Weekly Standard first posted, Cheney deployed a number of familiar tactics.
First, he revived the bogus claim that Saddam Hussein was working hand-in-glove with al-Qaeda: "We had the anthrax attack from an unknown source. We had the training camps of Afghanistan, and dictators like Saddam Hussein with known ties to Mideast terrorists."
Second, he depicted the Democrats as woefully out of touch with reality, trapped in a law enforcement approach when it comes to 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."
But as Obama pointed out, the Bush administration didn't really have a strategy, but an ad hoc policy towards prosecuting terrorists. Furthermore, Obama has not, and did not, say that 9/11 was an isolated event. In fact, he courageously noted that he cannot promise that another attack will never take place. But he also made it clear that stopping terrorism is his number one priority. Does that sound like someone who is asleep at the switch? Like a president, who, when listening to a CIA briefer warning about a looming al-Qaeda attack, says, "All right. You've covered your ass now."
Third, Cheney claimed, "Our government prevented attacks and saved lives through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and persons inside the United States. The program was top secret, and for good reason, until the editors of the New York Times got it and put it on the front page. After 9/11, the Times had spent months publishing the pictures and the stories of everyone killed by al-Qaeda on 9/11. Now here was that same newspaper publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaeda." But what operatives and persons inside the United States did this program ever expose?
Fourth, Cheney made it sound as though the Bush administration never embraced torture. The problem was confined to a few low-level, rogue guards: "At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency. For the harm they did, to Iraqi prisoners and to America's cause, they deserved and received Army justice. And it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib with the lawful, skillful, and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained to deal with a few malevolent men."
Fifth, Cheney ridiculed the notion that the Bush administration's tactics boomeranged: "This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the President himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrain from the Left, "We brought it on ourselves."
The reference to the "left" is revealing. Cheney began his speech by presenting himself as a simple, plainspoken fellow who had no office left to seek, no grudges to settle. But by the end, his mask slipped and the culture warrior appeared. His war isn't against terrorism. It's against Obama.