You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama V. Cheney

In their dueling national security speeches today, Barack Obama was all shades of grey, and Dick Cheney was a familiar black-and-white portrait. In a way reminiscent of his March 2008 speech about race in America, Obama was in fine professorial form, laying out the case for closing Guantanamo, and his recent hard decisions about declassification, in a thoughtful, elegant and nuanced way. He was inspiring about the founding American principles that guided him, but realistic about the maddening realities that may force him to compromise those principles. ("We are cleaning up something that is - quite simply - a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.") He condemned the record of the Bush administration, but also implicitly ridiculed the position of congressional Democratic leaders like Harry Reid who have insisted that no detainees can be returned to American soil. ("[I]f we continue to make decisions from within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes.") And he did a fine job of framing the hard decisions he will make in their proper, and complex context: "[Th]e problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place."

Dick Cheney, by contrast, offered nothing in the way of nuance or grey areas. He made no apology for U.S. detention and interrogation policies under his watch, and cast his critics as weak-kneed or opportunistic. ("In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.") He ridiculed Obama's tendency towards mediation and compromise. ("But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy.") And in perhaps the speech's most revealing passage, he argued that you either "get" September 11 or you don't.:

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.

To make clear which side Cheney comes down on, his speech featured 25 references to 9/11.

In the near-term, Obama is the hands-down winner of this matchup. The public is obviously tired of certitude and missionary zeal. The memory of 9/11 is fading from our culture's puny attention span. As Andrew Sullivan demonstrates, Cheney's speech is guilty of basic dishonesty.

But one senses that Obama knows he can't assume the politics of national security will always be so easy. His use of the word "safe," or some variant thereof, sixteen times shows that he understands the most important criteria for presidential success. The public has to trust that you will keep them safe. One main reason George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, despite the horror and stupidity of the Iraq war and various other failures was a lingering sense that Bush would be a better protector.

Now Obama finds himself disagreeing on a fundamental question of safety with members of his own party. Democrats Harry Reid, who is concerned about a dodgy re-election fight in Nevada (he remembers the fate of his old friend and predecessor, Tom Daschle), may care little for Obama's reasonable arguments about placing Guantanamo detainees in the U.S. That leaves Obama in an awkward position.

No doubt the White House is working hard to mobilize Democratic allies on the Hill, like Diane Feinstein, willing to support his case. But Obama must also hope that his ability to surmount familiar patterns of Washington partisan politics-to contest black and white politics with honest talk about shades of grey-a  will lead him through the most treacherous national security debate he has faced thus far.

-- Michael Crowley