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.
But why then would Dick Cheney decide to be such a vocal critic of President Obama? If the new administration were truly following in the footsteps of the previous administration, why would Cheney feel the need to criticize? There are several reasons.
The first reason: to dissuade Obama from his initial impulses. Despite two autobiographies, we still do not know much about Barack Obama — as a student, as a politician, as a man; what he’s done, where he’s been, what he thinks. But if there is one thing we do know, it is that he has never missed an opportunity to tell someone what they want to hear; nor has he ever stood up to shady associates with questionable views and motives. Obama shook hands and worked with an unapologetic Pentagon-bomber, listened for twenty years without protest to the hateful screeds of his racist crackpot preacher, and allowed a Soviet proxy to become his father figure in Hawaii. These are not conspiracies; these are facts of his own admission, cogently written in his books.
Therefore, if Obama did not find these miscreants objectionable, there is little evidence to suggest he would be suspicious of far-left groups with hyper-politicized aims. Operating from this orientation, it was entirely logical to expect Obama to go through on his thoughtless pledge to release photos depicting prisoner abuse from six years ago, an action that would have almost certainly and immediately resulted in more dead American soldiers. Initially, Obama treated the issue as carelessly as the netroot groups pushing for him to release the photos, until widespread opposition — and perhaps Cheney’s incessant pestering — compelled Obama otherwise.
The second reason: to undermine all attempts to criminalize the legal opinions of former Bush administration officials. While Cheney’s criticism of his successor might be poor decorum, it is Obama’s subtle encouragement of and flirtation with show trials for his predecessors which is truly the unprecedented and egregious act. In a city where underlings are thrown under the bus constantly, Cheney deserves a great deal of credit for standing up for low-level Bush-era lawyers whose only crime was to offer legal advice with which Obama says he disagrees — and then later adopted himself! This is the height of insanity and someone had to remind Barack Obama that this is the United States, not a third-world banana republic.
The third reason: to highlight the hypocrisy and disingenuousness of the debate itself. Take note of Nancy Pelosi’s charade, for example. She knew of the interrogation practices, did not object, lied about it, and is now insisting the intelligence community is lying instead. These are considerable, serious allegations. Speaker Pelosi is third in line in the presidential succession order and yet she is acting like a spoiled schoolgirl who will not admit she played hooky — even after she was caught.
The lesson? It is not only hypocritical and cheap, but also dangerous to present the international community a false narrative that basically says: “One party is the party of torture; the other party is the party of international exoneration and redemption.” When politics go past the water’s edge in this manner, to this extent, to this extreme, it hurts the country gravely. It is also unfounded.
The fourth reason: to get Obama to release all of the so-called “torture memos,” specifically those that detail the effectiveness of coercive interrogation. Last month, President Obama released the memos that described the methods of interrogation used against certain al-Qaeda detainees, but simultaneously blacked out the pages that described the efficiency of those interrogation techniques. Cheney, having read the blacked-out pages while in power, swears that these memos prove coercive interrogation prevented future terrorist attacks (in Los Angeles, amongst other places) and saved thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of American lives.
President Obama has caved to Dick Cheney on more than a half dozen detainee-related policies these past few weeks, but has refused to budge on releasing the blacked-out memos. How come? Certainly Obama would want to redeem himself, no? By declassifying all of the memos, Obama could prove that “torture” did not work and forever discredit Dick Cheney — that is, of course, if Cheney’s wrong about the content of the memos.
But the writing is on the wall: Cheney is likely correct about the content of the memos, which is why he is talking and Obama is stalling. Should these documents be released, as I suspect they will, and should they prove enhanced interrogation thwarted mass-casualty terrorist attacks on American soil, that would then constitute the final nail in the coffin of this political battle. Who knew it would be this easy to get inside Obama’s head?
Dick Cheney is challenging Obama on these issues not only to emphasize Obama’s naiveté and underscore his hypocrisy, but also to prove the impracticality of what the far left wants to do to U.S. national security strategy.
How wobbly must the leg they are standing on be if even their own hero, Barack himself, in the end sees the irresponsibility of their recommendations?
Curiously enough, only some sincere liberals are openly dismayed. Most others are silent about these developments, proving their hatred of Cheney and loyalty to Obama outweigh their devotion to their principles. For eight years, the far left equated Bush and Cheney to Hitler; none have yet openly pondered whether or not Obama is Himmler. He is, after all, doing the same exact things with some cherries on top.
Has there ever been an example where a private citizen so effectively knocked the president of the United States off message and off stride? This should not be a fair fight. Through unending ad hominem caricature, Dick Cheney is supposed to embody all that is evil; Obama, all that is new, fresh, and righteous. And yet Cheney is actually winning this debate, and winning badly. Cheney is the only former Bush official to come out, state the obvious, and expose the man behind the curtain: President Obama might rebuke Bush-era policies in word, but in deed he replicates them.