Alex Massie

Cheney vs Obama; Cheney vs The American Idea

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The theatre of yesterday's speeches from Barack Obama and Dick Cheney was irresistible. And phoney. That is, this was a pretty strange "duel" given that the matter was decided long ago and not just as recently as last November's election. Or, to put it another way, Dick Cheney might have given a largely and substantively similar speech had John McCain been the 44th President of the United States.

After all, McCain had also promised to close Guantanamo and confirm the prohibition on the use of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" Cheney says are so essential to preserving American security. There's nothing too surprising about this: Condi Rice also wanted to close Guantanamo and even President Bush held its eventual shuttering as a stated long-term policy aim.

Equally, the most controversial of the interrogation "techniques" were quietly dropped during Bush's second term. In other words, Cheney was arguing against the administration in which he served.

Because, as Jack Goldsmith (an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration) argues, the core truth of the Obama policy in these matters is that his administration has quietly accepted many of the policies advanced by the Bush administration. There is tweaking and there is trimming but there's no revolution. Oddly, the new administration sees the advantage in hoarding executive power. Some of it, too, is simply trying to find a path through the "mess" Obama inherited and some of it requires a degree of sleight of hand - ie, using Bagram airbase as a kind of "battlefield Guantanamo" and endorsing the idea of "preventative detention".

No surprise then, that someĀ  of the conservative outrage is really blustering that Obama is trying to have his cake and eat it. That is, he gives the impression of dismantling the Bush-era apparatus while secretly embracing large parts of it. Or, if not embracing, then making the best of a bad situation. True, this is hard to square with some of his campaign rhetoric, but ain't that often the way it goes?

No fair-minded person can fail to understand the climate of fear that engulfed Washington in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, nor can the effect of the terror and uncertainty this produced be under-estimated. In that sense, the Bush administration's immediate, scrambling, efforts to do anything it might take to prevent a repeat are entirely understandable. And, a charitable interpretation might suggest, if they went too far that was also forgivable given the extremity of the times.

But the policies and attitudes that seemed most appropriate in September 2001 are not necessarily the same as those that seem wise nearly eight years on. This should not surprise anyone since tactics and strategy always evolve in war-time.

Cheney charges that the changes Obama wants to make leave the United States looking "weak". Curiously, then, Cheney agrees with Osama bin Laden's description of the United States as a "weak horse" that lacks the stomach for the fight it has had thrust upon it.

But that misdiagnoses the nature of the conflict. At its most simple, this is a fight that al-Qaeda and its affiliates cannot win. But it is one that the United States can lose. This is a psychological struggle just as much as it is a military battle or a law-enforcement problem. al-Qaeda cannot possibly, even in the most gruesome, deadly scenario pose an "existential" threat to the United States, but it can defeat the Idea of America. It can only do so, however, if America lets itself be so defeated. That is, since the United States is, above all else, an idea the only way that al-Qaeda can prevail is if America itself destroys the Idea of America.

That, I think, is one reason why Obama made his speech at the National Archives, repository of the most sacred - indeed the defining - documents that are the intellectual and moral foundations of the great American experiment.

Roosevelt and Lincoln each did terrible damage to civil liberties but they did so without fostering the impression that the United States was abandoning its sense of itself or its destiny. That was, as Goldsmith writes, the Bush administration's great mistake. Bush and Cheney took the view that they could do whatever they wanted, with not questions permitted, let alone asked, at a time of crisis. They forgot to pay even lip-service to the Idea, but the lip-service matters.

Great powers are no strangers to hypocrisy and lord knows the United States does not have a blemish-free history but there is a difference between a regrettable, necessary and temporary diversion from the American Idea and casually, no wilfully, casting that Idea aside and suggesting that those who hold it dear are somehow aiding and abetting the enemy.

And here we come to Cheney's disdain for international opinion. The Cheney faction wears international disapproval as a badge of honour. Perhaps a man with an approval rating of 18% can do no other. But his black-and-white world in which your either with us or against us can't seem to understand that the degradations of the Bush years encouraged those who hate America anyway (See! Told you so!) while dismaying those who love and admire the United States. It is the potency of the American Idea that allows millions of people around the world to consider themselves would-be Americans even though they do not, and never will, enjoy the advantages of American citizenship.

Obama recognises this and seems to appreciate the fact that decontaminating the American brand is a positive step not a negative one. Rhetoric and public diplomacy are not trivial cards; they win tricks. And, just as importantly, they create room in which the United States can be given the benefit of the doubt.

A long war simply cannot be waged in an atmosphere of perpetual dread. And for all that there is a military element to the battle, it is also a question of ideas, of morality and, yes, of law enforcement. Terrorism cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone. It is the kind of fire better treated with foam than water. It needs to be smothered, but too often the Bush administration's policies ended up encouraging it.

Remember the fly-paper strategy? We're fighting the terrorists over there in Iraq so we don't have to fight them over here. Actually, of course, that was an admission that US policies were furthering, not reducing, extremism. At least in the short-term, that is.

Cheney's speech was nakedly, bruisingly political. That is, he was very careful to make it clear that, in his view anyway, Obama will bear the responsibility the next time the terrorists get lucky and succeed in attacking the US mainland. As Commander-in-Chief, some of the blame for this will inevitably, given our exaggerated expectations of the Presidency, be attached to Obama. But it makes no more sense to argue that Bush-Cheney policies were solely responsible for "keeping America safe" than it would to suggest that Clinton's policies were solely responsible for there being no attack on the US mainland during the final seven years of his Presidency. Never under-estimate the role of luck.

Nonetheless, this is where we are and Cheney prepared the ground for the Republicans to regain the initiative if there is, god forbid, another attack. And if that happens and there's a reversion to the attitude as well as substance of the Bush-Cheney years then the damage done to the United States will be much greater than whatever ghastliness may be inflicted by the terrorists themselves.

Other reactions: Mike Crowley, Toby Harnden, Norm Geras, Cato, Alex Knapp,

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalterrorism