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Ron Radosh

Obama vs. Cheney: Jack Goldsmith is Right

May 22nd, 2009 - 11:26 am

Yesterday, the nation heard the two contrasting views of how to deal with the war against terrorism, first by President Barack Obama speaking at the National Archives, and second from former Vice-President Dick Cheney speaking before The American Enterprise Institute. Certainly, from first appearances, the views seem diametrically opposed.  President Obama said: ” I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.”  In contrast, Cheney said: “The interrogations were…legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Gerald F. Seib argues that there is no contest. Dick Cheney won hands down, because there is no middle ground.  Actually there is, and it comes from Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School who was an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush Administration, and who wrote The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration .

Writing in TNR.com on May 18, in an article called “The Cheney Fallacy,” Goldsmith  argued that Barack Obama is waging a more effective war on terror than George W. Bush. The reason is not because, as Cheney argues, Obama has torn apart the proven methods used by the previous administration,  but because of the new administration’s “packaging.” Bush’s policies actually had legitimacy and efficacy, he writes, but the Bush administration  showed a foolish indifference “to process and presentation.” The Bush administration, Goldsmith contends, tried to act unilaterally on military commissions, detention and surveillance, avoiding seeking political and legal support from Congress. It thus aroused deep concern about an unnecessary expansion of presidential power, one that was exacerbated by expansive rhetoric.

In contrast, Barack Obama began with credibility, speaking as a critic of Bush’s terrorism policies and as a champion of civil liberties. Yet, as scores of commentators have noted, he has continued rather than scuttled Bush’s terrorism policies. He has done this, as yesterday’s speech showed, while trying to appear still as a strict opponent of the old Bush-Cheney policies, thereby deflecting the clear evidence that he has in fact continued them. Aside from the left-wing which will now increase its criticism of Obama as a sell-out, most of the nation is responding to Obama with the understanding that he has changed to keep the old policies in tact because he has learned that there is a real terror threat—and hence he cannot keep to promises made during the campaign.

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