It seems the British are figuring out this Obama guy. Why can’t my fellow Americans? Consider this brillant post by him below.
The spectacle of two duelling speeches with a mile of each other in downtown Washington was extraordinary. I was at the Cheney event and watched Obama’s address on a big screen beside the empty lectern that the former veep stepped behind barely two minutes after his adversary had finished.
So who won the fight? (it’s hard to use anything other than a martial or pugilistic metaphor). Well, most people are on either one side or the other of this issue and I doubt today will have prompted many to switch sides.
But the very fact that Obama chose to schedule his speech (Cheney’s was announced first) at exactly the same time as the former veep was a sign of some weakness.
The venues for the speeches said something. Obama showily chose the National Archives, repository for many of the founding documents of the US, and spoke in front of a copy of the Constitution – cloaking himself in the flag, as Republicans were often criticised for doing.
To hear Cheney speak, we were crammed into a decidedly unglamourous and cramped conference room at AEI, favourite think tank of conservative hawks.
The former veep’s speech was factual and unemotional and certainly devoid of the kind of hokey, self-obsessed, campaign-style stuff like this, from Obama’s address today: “I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offer. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land.”
In terms of Obama’s purported aim for his speech – to present a plan for closing Guantanamo Bay aimed at placating Congress – he failed. The reception on Capitol Hill was lukewarm with even Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Cheney’s speech wasn’t stylish, there were no rhetorical flourishes and the tone was bitingly sarcastic and disdainful at times. But it was effective in many respects and Cheney showed that Obama is not invulnerable. Here are 10 of the punches he landed on the President’s jaw:
1. “I’ve heard occasional speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that, but I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.”
Anyone who was in New York or Washington on 9/11 (I was here in DC) was profoundly affected and most Americans understand this. Obama was, as far as I can tell, in Chicago. His response – he was then a mere state senator for liberal Hyde Park – was startlingly hand-wringing and out of step with how most Americans were feeling. This statement by Cheney reminds people of the tough decisions he and Bush had to make – ones that Obama has not yet faced.
2. “The first attack on the World Trade Center was treated as a law- enforcement problem, with everything handled after the fact: arrests, indictments, convictions, prison sentences, case closed.”
This was the pre-9/11 mindset, much criticised after the attacks. Many sense that this is the approach Obama is increasingly taking.
3. “By presidential decision last month, we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know. We’re informed as well that there was much agonizing over this decision. Yet somehow, when the soul searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth.”
The release of the documents was a nakedly political move by Obama and Cheney called him on it. This passage from Obama’s speech today came across as completely disingenuous: “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.”
4. “It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessor. Apart from doing a serious injustice to intelligence operators and lawyers, who deserve far better for their devoted service, the danger here is a loss of focus on national security and what it requires.”
Obama’s suggestion that Bush administration officials might be prosecuted for legal and policy judgements about what was an was not permissible in interrogations was chilling. I doubt most Americans have any enthusiasm for such a witch-hunt and it flies in the face of Obama’s stated desire not to “re-litigate” the Bush years.
5. “We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country, things we didn’t know about al Qaeda. We didn’t know about al Qaeda’s plans, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we did not think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.”
The political climate is very different now from what it was just after 9/11 but it could change again in a heartbeat if and when there is another terrorist attack. Most Americans do not favour torture but do want the CIA and other agencies to question suspected terrorists very vigorously indeed if there is any chance they might know something about an attack on the US homeland.
6. “On his second day in office, President Obama announced he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation, and no plan. Now the president says some of these terrorists should be brought to American soil for trial in our court system. Others, he says, will be shipped to third countries; but so far, the United States has had little luck getting other countries to take hardened terrorists.”
Obama’s grand announcement at the start of his administration that Gitmo would be closed within a year was clearly not properly thought out. If he fails to achieve what he promised, he will pay a big political price and Cheney was marking his card on the issue.
7. “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 interest of justice and America’s national security.”
The notion that Obama makes gestures designed to court popularity abroad is one that could find increasing resonance – many Republicans strongly suspect it already.
8. “If fine speechmaking, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move them, the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.”
As Cheney said this, sarcasm dripped from his lips. Obviously “fine speechmaking” but no real substance is not a new charge against Obama and it hits home. And Cheney successfully mades the point that much of the rhetoric from the Left tends to suggest that if only the US did not waterboard people, if only the US was viewed as Obama rather than Bush, Venus rather than Mars then it would be universally loved and al-Qaeda would wither away. UNfortunately, that’s not the real world.
9. “It’s worth recalling that ultimate power of declassification belongs to the president himself. President Obama has used his declassification authority to reveal what happens in the interrogation of terrorists. Now let him use that same power to show Americans what did not happen thanks to the good work of our intelligence officials.”
Cheney is pushing Obama to declassify documeents relating to the information gained from terrorist suspects who were subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. This puts Obama in a bind. If he does so, it prolongs an argument he wants to move on from and prolongs the Obama vs Cheney meme that is distracting and doesn’t really help him. if he doesn’t, he looks like he has something to hide.
10. “To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, 7- 1/2 years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized.”
It’s indisputably an achievement of the Bush administration that it prevented the US from being attacked after 9/11. By ramming this point home, Cheney tees things up for some very tough questioning of Obama in the event that the US is attacked again.