Dick Cheney's campaign of retroactive self-justification, culminating in his AEI speech, is bizarre, and not just for its historical footnote-worthiness, its political thuggery, or its graceless, hectoring tone. What's strangest is that long after the policies he champions were cast aside by his own administration, and the Republican Party repudiated at the polls, he is still able to hijack an important issue with a campaign of pure rhetorical cant.
Let's be clear: Cheney is not making an argument about what anti-terrorism policies work best. A genuine argument would engage the difficult issues at hand, asking "what is the best way to fight terrorism?" It would marshal facts to support its positions. It would not be layered with half-truths and bursting with straw men. It would endeavor to convince skeptics. Perhaps there are arguments to be made that "enhanced interrogation techniques" are the most effective ways to elicit information, that illegally warehousing and "disappearing" terrorist suspects is the most effective way to handle them, and that only virtually unlimited executive power can guarantee security. But I have never heard such arguments from Cheney or his supporters.
Instead, all we get are angry, contemptuous assertions. Cheney is, by his own account, self-evidently right. His speech did not acknowledge that he or his Bush administrations had committed a single error. It did not acknowledge that principled people might disagree. The only source of disagreement would be the weakness, arrogance and naivete of his critics, including President Obama.
But of course this has almost nothing to do with the real world of devising policies to combat terrorism. The Bush White House itself abandoned torture when it became clear it wasn't very useful, was probably illegal, and was terribly damaging politically and strategically. If another 9/11 does occur, American officials will think twice before torturing again. And even if they go ahead and do it, what do you think will happen? Almost certainly a rerun of the same disaster that happened the first time. Cheney's "comprehensive strategy," as he calls it, wasn't very strategic: it was series of ad hoc fishing expeditions accompanied by public bluster that got us mostly grief. It was incoherent, an anti-strategy, one man's fantasy about imposing his will on a dangerous world. (Maybe there were some successes that can be attributed solely to Cheney's post 9/11 decisions - who knows? But to figure that out we need some kind of truth commission to evaluate the record.)
Cheney's demagoguery is nothing new in American politics. But what's striking is the deference and credibility it's granted by the media-political world. You'd think that there is an actual debate going on, that Obama and Cheney represent two positions with equal weight that Americans have to choose between. Today's Washington Post is symptomatic: the print edition features a banner headline: "In Dueling Speeches, a National Security Debate." The main story hits the familiar beats: "Presidential scholars could not recall another moment when consecutive administrations intersected so early and in such a public way." Okay, but framing it this way ignores the content of the speeches, and recent history. Obama, whatever you may think of his recent compromises on the terrorism front, is at least wrestling with real issues (as this Post editorial correctly points out) attempting to create a legal framework for terrorism suspects. Cheney's statements, meanwhile, should be treated with skepticism, as he has a record of brazenly uttering untruths in service to a political agenda marked by its determined detachment from reality. Do his words really deserve the respect, with its implication of importance and legitimacy, that they're getting?
Besides embellishing a legacy, the current Cheney campaign seems aimed at one thing: setting up Obama for the stab-in-the-back treatment in the event of another terror attack. Please. Terrorism is a serious problem. It requires real strategic thinking. Such posturing may be catnip to the press, but it's virtually irrelevant to the world we live in, and unhelpful to the hard work of protecting us.