Thursday, May 21, 2009


“Does anyone still doubt,” asks Rich Lowry at National Review, “that it was a good and necessary thing for Cheney to be out counter-punching on national security?”

William Kristol reads both speeches, goes with the fight metaphor: “a mismatch“:

Obama’s is the speech of a young senator who was once a part-time law professor–platitudinous and preachy, vague and pseudo-thoughtful in an abstract kind of way. . . . Cheney’s is the speech of a grownup, of a chief executive, of a statesman. He’s sober, realistic and concrete, stands up for his country and its public officials, and has an acute awareness of the consequences of the choices one makes as a public official and a willingness to take responsibility for those choices.

“I do find it kind of amazing that Cheney is offering up a national security speech,” writes John Cole at Balloon Juice.

It is just weird to have a former VP out there openly sabotaging a new administration, and make no mistake about it, that is what Cheney is doing. . . .

But what is really weird is that they seem to have just given up any pretense that Bush was anything other than an empty suit. Between Dick’s multiple pronouncements, his really odd response on MTP in which he said “I guess the President had been briefed,” and stunts like this speech today, Cheney is basically telling you who the HMFIC for the last eight years was, and he wasn’t a legacy frat boy from Connecticut.

“I hope that President Obama is enjoying this debate,” writes Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, “and one certainly hopes that he will continue to embrace it, because it is a debate that he has been asking for since he decided to run for president.”

Still, when Goldfarb looks across the aisle, he see little enjoyment:

Each day the Democrat’s angst seems to deepen, and each day the confusion of President Obama’s policies becomes more evident. Despite all the rhetoric of his presidential run, he has now embraced the Bush administration policies on the commitment of troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now supports the wiretapping he threatened to filibuster. He has denied the release of photos that the Bush administration likewise recognized as a propaganda gift for our enemies, and a danger to our troops serving in Iraq, and has revived the military tribunals he once scorned. And on those issues where his record has matched his rhetoric — such as the commitment to close Guantanamo, he is not even supported by his own party.

One wonders what comes next. I bet he tries to change the subject — and quickly.

James Fallows says the following two sentences form the President’s remarks were the “argumentative / explanatory crux of the speech to the right“:

I do know with certainty that we can defeat al Qaeda. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are.

“This has been,” continues Fallows, “from the start, the central indictment of the Bush-Cheney approach to al Qaeda.”

Anything-goes tactics may or may not win battles, but they certainly lose wars. Dick Cheney’s speech, cut off by BBC about ten minutes in, is ineffective not just because of its anger/contempt but also because what is billed as a response is in fact one cycle late, simply re-stating the claims Obama went out of his way to rebut (rather that keeping up with the cycle by answering anything Obama said).

At the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder says “Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections.”

Ambinder bases his argument in part on an article by Jack Goldsmith in this week’s issue of the New Republic. In particular, Ambinder cites Goldsmith’s description of the primary difference between the Obama and Bush administrations approach

concern[s] not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.

“I doubt that many White House officials disagree,” continues Ambinder, “”although they point out that many of the institutionalized decisions that Goldsmith sees are works in progress, and that the executive is inherently limited in his ability to quickly reverse course on many aspects of national security policy.”

Indeed, it is hard to find a Bush administration official who disagrees with Goldsmith at this point, save for friends and allies of Mr. Cheney’s. That’s because, from the middle of the President’s second term until the end, the Bush administration began the process of legitimation. . . .

Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections. He is arguing with Republican Party elites, most of whom are willing to criticize individual decisions Obama has made but who can’t find fault with his general approach to terrorism.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but our president can give a helluva speech,” writes Adam Serwer at the American Prospect.

The most important part of the president’s speech was the framing of our national conversation around this issue. . . . He reframed his positions national security, much as he does with all political issues, as standing between two “two opposite and absolutist ends,” those who would never “put national security over transparency” and those who believe the Nixonian dictum that “that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants.”

I don’t buy this framing. The fact is that there is no middle ground when it comes to due process. With his soaring and sincere rhetoric, the president has done an incredible job of selling his kindler, gentler War on Terror, and ultimately, the American people will likely have his back, if only because they trust him. In a sense, Barack Obama may be far more dangerous than George W. Bush when it comes to violating our civil liberties, where the American people feared the excesses of Bush, they trust wholly in the sincerity of Barack Obama. At least for now.

Glenn Greenwald says “the speech was fairly representative of what Obama typically does:

effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds). Like all political officials, Obama should be judged based on his actions and decisions, not his words and alleged intentions and motives. Those actions in the civil liberties realm, with some exceptions, have been profoundly at odds with his claimed principles, and this speech hasn’t changed that. Only actions will.

“I regard it as the national security equivalent of his Jeremiah Wright speech,” writes Andrew Sullivan.

Why? Because it managed to reach a place apart from, while being fully part of, the furious debates we have been having. These debates are vital, and the notion that we can simply move on from the Bush-Cheney era without some accounting or reform is both empirically and morally false. We are struggling for a sustainable, long-term balance between security against a ruthless and unprincipled and lawless enemy - and a law of war, and a judicial system and a civilization that we rightly love and want to defend. This struggle will be a long one, and an extremely difficult one, and the most profound of the insights that the president offered today is as banal as it is central:

“There is a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions: even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from the other branches of government, and seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for addressing these issues in the long-term.”

. . . I feel much more confidence now that victory - for both our system and the war against Jihadism - is possible. Civil liberties purists will quibble and fight. Cheney-dead-enders will continue to stoke fear and division. I think this is the right balance - and deserves our vocal and persistent support.