Obama vs. CheneyWatching the dueling torture speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney (a rumble in the video jungle?), I was reminded of last year’s campaign flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In each case, Obama was caught off guard by an eruption that provoked the politics of fear, and he responded with a big speech that treated us like grown-ups.
By: Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune, The Jamestown Sun
Watching the dueling torture speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney (a rumble in the video jungle?), I was reminded of last year’s campaign flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In each case, Obama was caught off guard by an eruption that provoked the politics of fear, and he responded with a big speech that treated us like grown-ups.
That’s more than I can say for Cheney’s arch appeal to the same paranoid post-9/11 fears that led to what Obama accurately, if unpoetically, terms “a mess” that we now have to clean up. That’s also more than I can say for the Senate’s adolescent reasoning in their abandonment of Obama’s $81 million request to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This time Team Obama’s famous political and image skills were caught off-guard, judging by what a couple of high-level officials who did not want to be identified told a small group of journalists, including me, at the White House.
Two days after entering office, Obama issued an executive order to close the prison nicknamed “Gitmo” by Jan. 22, 2010. He also called for a cabinet-level panel to meet this summer over such issues as where in the United States the prisoners might be moved and tried.
But the legislative train rolled out of Congress’ station ahead of the White House’s timetable. The result was a train wreck for the administration. Forty-eight Senate Democrats joined Republicans to kill Obama’s $81 million request to close Gitmo 90-to-6.
It’s not dead, say leaders as varied as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But first, they say, they want to see Obama’s detailed plan for the relocation of the detainees.
Their political fear is NIMBY — “not in my backyard” — a term usually associated with controversies over the dumping of toxic waste.
Nervous lawmakers suddenly bought into the notion that our prisons can’t house suspected terrorists, even though we have been housing convicted terrorists like shoe bomber Richard Reid; Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker”; and Timothy McVeigh’s partner Terry Nichols for years without one escape.
That’s the sort of twisted government-by-sound bite at which Obama took aim with his hastily scheduled address in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives.
It was hardly coincidental that the former vice president happened to be scheduled that same morning to speak on national security at the conservative American Enterprise Institute a few Metro stops away. Cheney began his speech two minutes after Obama finished. The contrast between the two offered a debate between the policies of Obama and those of President Bush, but mainly the first term of Bush.
It was during those three years or so after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Cheney had his greatest influence. He pushed policies that tested the limits of the law, but the Bush administration too often produced legal interpretations in ways that were morally questionable and quite possibly created as many problems in fighting terrorism as they appeared to solve.
Bush’s second term began the process of rolling back the excesses, including releasing two-thirds of the Gitmo detainees and promising to close the prison. As a result, Guantanamo did not even rise as an issue in last year’s presidential campaign, since McCain and Obama agreed it should be closed. Only now does Cheney, unbound by elective office, engage in a one-man campaign to revive policies that even his former boss, President Bush, rejected.
While from the right the likes of Cheney criticize Obama for allegedly rolling back too much in the great debate over torture and detentions, the president’s critics on his left criticize him for not rolling back enough.
Particularly troubling is his defense, however reluctant, of preventive detentions, which he called “prolonged detention” in his speech. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow compared it, not unfairly, to the “pre-crime” police in Tom Cruse’s sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” who arrest and charge suspects before they commit crimes.
That’s the sort of abuse that Democrats criticized when Bush did it. Now Obama is stuck in the same rut, partly because known murderers could be released by civilian courts because of evidence tainted by torture and other abuses that were allowed on Cheney’s watch.
In the battle against terrorists, there’s “no middle ground,” says Cheney. But, of course, there is. Obama’s standing on it and, like a tortoise in the middle of a two-lane highway, he’s getting spun around by the traffic on both sides. Bush’s burden is now Obama’s: How do we preserve our constitutional principles while keeping our country safe? As with the flap over Rev. Wright, Obama’s Gitmo speech does not end the conversation. It’s only a beginning.
(C) 2009 CLARENCE PAGE
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