The Smooth Barack Obama vs. the Rough-Around-the-Edges Dick Cheney: The False Dilemma of Principle vs. No Principle

–Richard E. Vatz

The speeches were as contrasting as 2 speeches could be.

President Barack Obama emphasized his concept of American values as not only intrinsically better than the concept of those who he claims ignore legal restrictions on torture, for example, but also instrumentally better in protecting the United States from terrorist attacks. He also made implicit evidentiary claims, such as that the Bush Administration’s interrogation values constituted an “ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable.”

There were further claims that were similarly contrary to evidence or evidence-free: “Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause…the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

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President Obama admitted at least that “There are no neat or easy answers here.”

President Obama said in variation after variation, “We will not release anyone if it would endanger our national security…”, but the substance of his speech provides no such assurance beyond the general claim.

President Obama spoke of principles of reform – he is almost obsessed with principles to the exclusion of security threats when the two are, in his opinion, in conflict.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed in his speech (following Obama’s) at the conservative American Enterprise Institute that a perverse focus on strict adherence to — and definition of — principle compromises United States’ security, which his administration protected from successful terrorist attacks following 9/11.

Cheney argued that when an imminent danger, say of terrorism in the homeland, has passed, that people grow complacent and wonder whether such national security concern is necessary.

He argued that such complacency justified for irresponsible policy makers the lack of assiduous counter-terrorism considerations that were surely necessitated by attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and other subsequent attacks in the 1990s on the United States’ people and interests .

He argues that wars – especially wars against terrorists who may acquire WMD – cannot be fought defensively, as is the wont of leaders such as those in the current Democratic Administration.

He concludes this line of argument with a devastating observation: “So we’re left to draw one of two conclusions – and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years, and of the policies necessary to protect America for years to come.”

Regarding enhanced interrogation, Cheney, true to form, wants to argue evidence and consequences, certain that the value differences are minimum: he is outraged at the prospect of criminalization of policy differences during the last Administration, and for the policy judgment differences that have ensued since.

Regarding release of interrogation memos, he points to the Democratic Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, who opposed them. He says we should look at the reluctant testimony of Panetta and Democrats who oppose bringing terrorists to U.S. Prisons. Look at, Cheney urges, the value of enhanced interrogation according to “President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence Admiral Blair…”

Whom does the president wish to spare enhanced interrogation? Let Cheney make his own point: “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.”

Cheney wants us to look at the evidence at what terrorist information was gleaned by enhanced interrogation. Look at the evidence, he says, of “what our country was spared.

The argument that if we find situations which justify violating inviolable principles, then the principles are not actually inviolable, misses an important point: there must be a hierarchy of principles when they come into conflict.

In the current case of fighting terrorism which may involve, in one writer’s words, “loss of major cities,” the principle above avoiding torture is protection for Americans against an actual threat to the existence of the nation.

If you want attractive, likeable, highly-humanistically-principled and rhetorically moving speakers, Barack Obama is your man.

If you want those same values except in the rare occasion when they are trumped by WMD terrorist exigencies, the less-smooth but more responsible Dick Cheney, or at least his policies, should be your choice.

If the Pakistani Taliban secured some nuclear weapons and we were confident that they were about to transport them to al Qaeda, and if investigators believed that, for example, waterboarding were effective in finding out the location of the nukes-in-transit, should responsible policy-makers oppose its use?

Not if they understand that principles themselves sometimes are in irreconcilable conflict.

The rough ex-Vice President Dick Cheney appears to understand this point; but the smooth, likeable and attractive President Obama is more reassuring – for now.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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