Cheney vs. Obama

President Obama and Dick Cheney continue to be the strongest advocates for their vision of how to fight the War on Terror. The text of Obama’s speech is here and Cheney’s speech is here. Obama gave a characteristically nuanced speech, explaining how his administration has sought to fight terrorism in a way that is consistent with our values, and said “we went off course” during the Bush administration.

I thought this was the strongest section of Cheney’s speech:

The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the President is on the path of sensible compromise. But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy. When just a single clue that goes unlearned â€_ one lead that goes unpursued â€_ can bring on catastrophe — it’s no time for splitting differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.

Cheney also reminded the audience that there weren’t any attacks on U.S. soil in the seven and a half years since 9/11, which he attributed to the administration’s effective policies that Obama is unraveling.

While I think this is a very important debate, there is a sense in which it doesn’t really matter. Obama is running the show now, and he’s going to decide what he thinks will make America safe — no president wants to see thousands of American civilians killed. He says that the Bush administration’s policies not only violated our ideals, but they made us less safe, fine. Now he’s changing those policies, so we’ll be able to judge him based on his performance.

That’s why I thought this statement by Obama, toward the end of his speech, was interesting:

Neither I nor anyone else can standing here today can say that there will not be another terrorist attack that takes American lives. But I can say with certainty that my Administration — along with our extraordinary troops and the patriotic men and women who defend our national security — will do everything in our power to keep the American people safe.

Obama campaigned for nearly two years on the premise that Bush was utterly incompetent and as president, Obama has displayed confidence that his own way of doing things is superior. I hope Obama is correct. But if there’s a major terrorist attack on his watch, it won’t be satisfactory to simply say “we tried our best.” It’s hard to argue that national security policies that kept us safe for seven and a half years were wrongheaded, if you change those policies and there’s another attack on the homeland.