Don’t look now, but Dick Cheney — a recently retired, highly unpopular figure — is in the midst of winning a battle for the ages by successfully challenging President Obama on perhaps the most consequential issue of the last decade. Cheney, who remained relatively silent during his eight years in power, cannot keep quiet now. And while his constant presence on television might be hurting the Republican Party politically, Cheney’s substantive criticism of Obama is doing the country an immense service.
Dick Cheney, with help from his daughter Liz, has crystallized the insane nature of our national debate regarding detainee policy. He has called President Obama’s bluff on numerous issues related to terrorist detention and interrogation; Obama, to the chagrin of his supporters, has blinked.
Charles Krauthammer labels this “the Obama three-step,” whereby Barack will first “excoriate the Bush policy,” then “ostentatiously unveil cosmetic changes,” only to finally “adopt the Bush policy.” President Obama likes to talk about the “false choice” between our values and our security, but the disparity between his words and actions is gargantuan.
Since his inauguration, Obama has either reversed or triangulated himself on nearly every Bush-created national security program that he once lambasted as a candidate. Whether it is the Patriot Act, FISA, surveillance programs, wiretappings, email intercepts, rendition of terrorist detainees, indefinite detention of terrorists, withholding the writ of habeas corpus to terrorists, or employing military tribunals for al-Qaeda prisoners, Obama no longer hyperbolizes these programs as fascistic and contrary to our ideals. You see, he’s in charge now — so they can’t possibly be lawless anymore. On all of these issues, Obama has adopted the very same Bush approach he once castigated as reckless and pointless to our security.
Obama claims to have put an end to waterboarding — which really ended in 2002-03 — but has since asked CIA Director Leon Panetta to devise harsher interrogative practices reserved exclusively for dire circumstances (apparently the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a time in which we knew next to nothing of al-Qaeda’s subsequent plans, was not “dire” enough).
Obama also promised to close Guantanamo Bay, but has not explained where he will transfer the remaining Gitmo detainees. As a result, the Senate voted 90-6 denying the requisite funds the administration needs to close the prison facility. As it turns out, the Democrats in Congress, who hammered President Bush for years to close the supposedly gulag-like detention center, do not exactly want the most dangerous men in the world to be imprisoned in their local districts.
How does Obama get away with such phony pretense? How is he able to say, with a straight face, that affording foreign aliens — indeed, wartime enemy combatants — the right to civilian court jurisprudence is “the essence of who we are,” and then, in the next breath, do just the opposite? Jack Goldsmith correctly concludes, “The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.”
That’s just it: packaging. Through the tempo of his oratory, the cadence of his vernacular, the smoothness of his surroundings, and the occasional mimicking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s drawl and downwards voice-box tremble, Barack Obama channels and packages George Bush better than George Bush ever could. This is not change and hope. It’s continuity — and more significantly, it’s theater.