I watched the “dueling speeches” this morning, and finally had a chance to jot down some hasty thoughts.
First, while President Obama proclaimed that he had no interest in re-litigating the problems of the past eight years, that is almost entirely what he did. In fact, as usual, it was difficult to differentiate this presidential address from a candidate Obama stump speech. Nearly every statement he made regarding terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo, interrogations, etc. was (and is) consumed by a desire to stand on the rooftop and shout “I’m not George W. Bush!” Obama seems obsessed with refuting the Bush administration and I think this fact prohibits him from making sound decisions regarding the threats we face.
Second, Obama went to great pains to emphasize that Gitmo has created more terrorists than it has detained, has weakened American security, and the interrogation methods use there, and elsewhere, undermined our fight. This entire argument is premised on the belief that indefinite detention for unlawful combatants who ignore the rules of war — and alleged systematic mistreatment of said militants — provides overwhelming propaganda to our enemies and undermines our values (not to mention distressing the latte crowd across the pond).
Laying aside the debate over what is and what isn’t “torture,” it’s hard to argue with 8+ years of safety since 9/11. Yet, somehow, the interrogations we used to get valuable intelligence have “undermined” our safety. President Obama should tell that to the special operators I served with overseas — and who are still serving — who killed and captured truckloads of so-called jihadists on the battlefield with the intelligence from American interrogations. Or tell that to the American’s who were saved through intelligence we gathered that prevented attacks on our homeland.
Finally, my ears perked up when I heard the president tell Congress, “I’m not the only one who swore an oath to defend the Constitution” — implying that Congress should see him as the gold standard in defending our constitutional values. It’s true that all three branches of government have a responsibility to defend the Constitution, but there are millions more Americans — with more important jobs than the Beltway baby-kissers — who swore to defend the Constitution as well. American warriors on the battlefield put partisan allegiance aside and excute their given mission with professionalism and courage.
President Obama should think a bit more about how the actions he takes will have an affect on these “oath-takers.” When it came to the release of photos showing mistreatment, Obama made the right choice and kept them sealed (for now) in order to prevent more violence against our troops. He needs to take the same into account as he decides whether to ship dangerous terrorists out of Gitmo and provide them ever-more legal protections. Actions which could, theoretically, set dangerous terrorists free to fight another day.
The president’s juggling-act stands in stark contrast to former Vice President Cheney’s grown-up speech at AEI. After hearing President Obama literally call the Bush approach “a misguided experiment” and “a mess,” Cheney calmly dispelled the caricature of the big bad Bush sdministration.
His defense of doing what it takes — within the law and under the Constitution — struck me as the kind of gutsy, straightforward, and yet sophisticated approach our country needs from the White House. Cheney underscored the continued threat we face, and the need to support our war-fighters — and intelligence operatives — as they do the dirty work of defending the Constitution. He also emphasized that a) they must have all the tools they need (within the law); b) we can’t afford to start releasing terrorists, thereby putting our troops in more danger; and c) who cares what Europe thinks, American security is at stake here.
My guess is that most American’s will be drawn to President Obama’s souring rhetoric on the topic; but I think that if just the text of the speech was read to your average American without telling them who said it, most would side with the voice of leader, not a politician seeking to placate competing constituencies.