Friday, May 22, 2009

Cheney v. Obama on Torture

President Obama gave a speech on national security yesterday and was immediately followed by a what is tantamount to a rebuttal by former Vice-President Dick Cheney. I'll leave a more substantive analysis of the speeches for a later post and make two comments about Cheney's vigorous engagement with the Obama administration's national security policy.

First, even though some pundits wonder why Cheney is speaking out and is not back in Wyoming somewhere, Cheney's campaign may actually be good for the country by stimulating a real public debate on national security policy and getting the Obama administration to articulate as coherent and specific of a vision. This is exactly what did not happen during the Bush administration. Everything was done in secret and the administration was did not any explanations for its policy until well after those policies were under way and had caused significant damage. There was no ex ante public airing of the benefits and drawbacks of various approaches to real thorny national security problems.

By contrast, we're seeing more discussion of Obama's national security approach. This is so in part because too many were silent or unaware during the Bush administration; so there is a commitment to be more vigilant. But it is also so because Dick Cheney has served as a one-man opposition party. He has forced the Obama administration to be more self-conscious in its articulation of its national security vision. He has also forced the administration to defend that vision. For example, Politico is reporting that President Obama was compelled to give this speech defending and explaining his approach to national security because the Democrats on the Hill wanted some political cover from Cheney-led attacks in order to support the administration's national security policy.

I don't think a compelling response to Cheney is "you lost, get over it, and stay in Wyoming." We as a country deserve to know what it is our administration is doing and why is it that they're doing. And if pressure on the administration from both the right and the left, forces the administration to explain and justify its national security approach, that's good for American democracy. I wish Al Gore had the temerity to do the same in the early days of the Bush administration instead of a self-imposed two-year moratorium on speaking out against the Bush administration.

Second, whatever Cheney's motives are in speaking out, certainly they include self-preservation. With some in Congress wanting to try the Vice-President for violating domestic and international law, the best defense is a very good offense. Mr. Cheney is certainly on the offensive. Dick Cheney does not seem like a man who is going to sit idly by on the hope that the Democrats will not have enough gumption to indict him; I don't expect him to heading back to Wyoming just yet.

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