It was a remarkable moment for Washington and the nation—the high-profile clash of two diametrically opposed visions of national security and how to keep America safe.
President Barack Obama, in a speech Thursday at the National Archives, described a world that is best handled with reason, restraint, and common sense, and where traditional American values of respect for the law, openness, and opposition to torture still matter.
On the other hand, former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech delivered at the American Enterprise Institute a few minutes after Obama's, painted a darker, more dangerous world, where policymakers must plan for the worst and where Americans must hunker down on a permanent war footing.
The immediate topic was Obama's plan to close the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which has become an international symbol for abuse of detainees. But the Obama-Cheney "debate" had a much wider focus: the terrorist threat and how to combat it. "I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as commander in chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake," Obama said.
He also said George W. Bush's administration, though well intentioned, "made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." As an example, he said 240 people at Guantánamo have "spent years in legal limbo." "We are cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess, a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country," Obama said. But he didn't spell out precisely what would happen to all those detainees if Guantánamo closes. And this void was a big reason Congress, in a rebuke to Obama, rejected an $80 million appropriation for the prison's shutdown.
But Cheney said closing Guantánamo would be wrong, and he faulted Obama for announcing, shortly after taking office, that he would shutter the facility with "little deliberation and no plan." Cheney defended the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies, including the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding that Obama has called torture. Cheney said those methods generated important information about terrorist activities. The former vice president went on to portray two parallel universes. There is a choice between Bush's approach, which Cheney said has kept the country safe since 9/11, and the Obama approach, which Cheney said deals with 9/11 as an anomaly that it is "not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. "Cheney said the two views represent "the great dividing line in our current debate over national security." On that, at least, both sides would probably agree.