Obama vs. Cheney: Man vs. Manchild
It was an extraordinary moment for our times. Two men with radically opposing viewpoints gave speeches on national security at roughly the same time and addressed most of the same subjects.
One, former Vice President Dick Cheney. The other, our current President Barack Obama. While it is difficult to be objective about the content of both speeches, a couple of general observations about the style and tone of the addresses can be made based on long standing principles of good speechmaking without resorting to (too much) partisanship.
I found the contrasting styles of the speeches fascinating. Cheney - elder statesman, experienced in government and politics - gave a speech that was a classic debaters' defense of Bush era policies as well as a straightforward tour d'horizon listing the threats we face an the nature of our enemies. Cheney's appeal was to the head, not the heart.
Obama, on the other hand, gave a speech he could have given a year ago during the campaign. High minded but defensive - almost as if he were responding to a campaign faux pas:
The third decision that I made was to order a review of all pending cases at Guantanamo. I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we don't have the luxury of starting from scratch. We're 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, almost daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.
Note the appeal to sympathy and evasion of responsibility. Obama's speech is peppered with these little emotional appeals for understanding which is not only unseemly for a president but only serves to highlight his confusion and refusal to place national security above the plane of rhetoric and "values" and treat it like the hard headed, real world responsibility that it must be if we are to stay safe.
Cheney cooly dissected most of Obama's arguments, praising the president for some of his actions but pointing out in no uncertain terms that the president's starry eyed view of the threats we face as well as his plans with regard to Guantanamo do not make us safer:
On his second day in office, President Obama announced that he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation and no plan. Their idea now, as stated by Attorney General Holder and others, is apparently to bring some of these hardened terrorists into the United States. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the President's own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states, these Democrats chose instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war supplemental.
The administration has found that it's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security. Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, it turns out that many were treated too leniently, because they cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East. I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.
In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we've captured as, quote, "abducted." Here we have ruthless enemies of this country, stopped in their tracks by brave operatives in the service of America, and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims, picked up at random on their way to the movies.
Note how Cheney cuts through the clutter and gets to the heart of the matter. He does it by appealing to logic and reason, not emotion. Even his frequent mentions of 9/11 during the speech were contextual and not designed to elicit an emotional reaction. It's what Obama failed to do in his speech. His context was "cleaning up the Bush mess," rather than fighting and winning the War on Terror.
There was nothing radically wrong with Obama's speech stylistically - if, as I said, he were still running for president. It flowed nicely. It laid out the liberal narrative on torture and Guantanamo smoothly. The frequent breaks for applause proved that his appeal to emotion worked quite well.
But the speech itself was appalling. It sounded whiny in places and extremely defensive. And this part sent chills down my spine:
National security requires a delicate balance. One the one hand, our democracy depends on transparency. On the other hand, some information must be protected from public disclosure for the sake of our security -- for instance, the movement of our troops, our intelligence-gathering, or the information we have about a terrorist organization and its affiliates. In these and other cases, lives are at stake.Now, several weeks ago, as part of an ongoing court case, I released memos issued by the previous administration's Office of Legal Counsel. I did not do this because I disagreed with the enhanced interrogation techniques that those memos authorized, and I didn't release the documents because I rejected their legal rationales -- although I do on both counts. I released the memos because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration had acknowledged its existence, and I had already banned those methods. The argument that somehow by releasing those memos we are providing terrorists with information about how they will be interrogated makes no sense. We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach. That approach is now prohibited.In short, I released these memos because there was no overriding reason to protect them. And the ensuing debate has helped the American people better understand how these interrogation methods came to be authorized and used.
I don't think I've ever seen such a narrow, self serving definition of government secrecy nor a lamer excuse for violating it. The same argument was made for opposing the Terrorist Surveillance Program; terrorists already know we listen to them so what's the big deal?
Cheney, to say the least, is not impressed:
One person who by all accounts objected to the release of the interrogation memos was the Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta. He was joined in that view by at least four of his predecessors. I assume they felt this way because they understand the importance of protecting intelligence sources, methods, and personnel. But now that this once top-secret information is out for all to see - including the enemy - let me draw your attention to some points that are routinely overlooked.It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You've heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Muhammed - the mastermind of 9/11, who has also boasted about beheading Daniel Pearl.We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country. We didn't know about al-Qaeda's plans, but Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we didn't think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.Maybe you've heard that when we captured KSM, he said he would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer. But like many critics of interrogations, he clearly misunderstood the business at hand. American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding, but to extract information from him before al-Qaeda could strike again and kill more of our people.
For Obama, his "feel good" national security policy requires that it doesn't matter if the enemy gains an advantage, only that we adhere to his idea of "American values" - which wouldn't mean very much to dead Americans who were killed due to his frightening naivete and stupidity.
These were two speeches that featured competing world views, competing visions of America, and competing ideas on how to deal with the threats that face us. Cheney's statesmanlike address contrasted with Obama's campaign-style, defensive talk. One appealed to the head, the other the heart. One was delivered by a man, the other a man-child.
Dick Cheney is emerging as the elder statesman of the Republican party and the goto guy on critiquing Obama's national security policy. Let's hope he is accorded the opportunity to comment often.