Recklessness Cloaked in Righteousness

In the silence following Dick Cheney's last grumbled words in response to President Obama's speech on counterterrorism strategy last week, I could almost hear the clicking of thousands of keyboards as they erupted in a cacophony of punditry. Some masterfully dissected Cheney's statements to reveal their mind-blowing inanity, while others claimed Obama is hewing closely to the Bush Administration's approach to the threat from al-Qaeda (AQ) or criticized him for not going far enough on the treatment of detainees. I was tempted to ignore the speech, consigning Cheney to the irrelevancy he deserves, but I worry that many of the responses miss an important aspect of the two speeches, and overlook why Cheney's statements are so significant. Beyond the contrasting styles and rhetorical quality of President Obama and Cheney, what we really saw were two distinct views on the threats the United States faces.

The worldview Cheney presented was distressingly familiar. America faces a shadowy enemy that hates us for who we are; no policies we enact can change this. This enemy seems ever-present, from supposed sleeper cells throughout America to the next 9/11 waiting in the wings. Despite Cheney's refusal to provide details, though, the reality of this threat is apparently undeniable. Any lack of will among the American public -- which includes debating our counterterrorism strategies -- is capitulation to the terrorists. Moreover, the failure to completely appreciate the immediate and existential nature of this threat, which justifies seemingly immoral actions in response, would invite disaster. As Cheney said, there is "no middle ground;" we must either accept that terrorism poses a threat and support the use of torture and ill-advised wars of choice, or side with the terrorists.

Obama's worldview is markedly different. First, like Bush/Cheney, he does agree that the terrorism of AQ is a serious and continuing threat. Yet, it is because of this emphasis -- rather than in spite of it -- that Obama's strongest critiques of Bush/Cheney emerge. The best way to combat this shadowy threat is to realize the uncertainty that surrounds it and admit, as Obama did, that there are "no easy answers;" what might seem the only choice to keep us safe -- such as torture -- may actually be counterproductive. Moreover, the very severity of this threat calls for an affirmation of those American values that Cheney seems to think get in the way. As Obama said, our values are our greatest weapon in winning over potential AQ supporters. This is more than a tactical difference; it reveals the distinct worldview in which Obama is operating. The goals of AQ are incommensurable with liberal democratic values, and we will never win over hardcore AQ members. Yet, we can undermine their support by demonstrating our commitment to -- and the benefits that arise from -- those values, thus allowing room for more nuanced strategies than Cheney's invade-and-torture or surrender dichotomy.

Of the two worldviews, Obama's is the more accurate and more likely to produce effective counterterrorism policies. Cheney laughably criticized Obama for "recklessness cloaked in righteousness;" laughably because that phrase can easily describe most of the Bush/Cheney Administration's many failures and abuses. A worldview that admits uncertainty and nuance is part of the very American tradition -- beginning with the Federalist Papers -- of checking human ambition and fallibility, it is also inextricably tied to a strong foreign policy. Moreover, Obama's view of the threat from terrorism is more accurate, based on facts and rational analysis. Approaches to the struggle with terrorism that are instead based on ideological zealotry -- such as Cheney's -- are doomed to failure.

There is the very real possibility, however, that Cheney's worldview is more potent politically. The charge of being "weak on terrorism" still terrifies legislators, as seen in Senate Democrats' recent abandonment of Obama's effort to close Guantanamo; a return to the effective fear-mongering of the Bush/Cheney years is a distinct possibility. Progressives must have the courage to support Obama's policies, through the same strategy he is so ably pursuing. President Obama draws explicitly on true American values, tying his counterterrorism policies to our tradition of rule of law and transparency; as seen in the McCarthy-era, fear-mongering is powerful, but Americans soon realize what it is that makes this nation so majestic. Also, his policies are not ad hoc initiatives or political triangulation. They represent a coherent set of beliefs about how the world works, a worldview that is our best chance to both maintain our security and ensure the United States of America remains the greatest country in the world.