Cheney V. Obama (And Bush's Second Term)


Sounding at times like he was attending a greatest hits parade, Dick Cheney gave a stout defense of the policies of the first half of the Bush administration -- and the policies that Cheney, in particular, shepherded, like the NSA's "terrorist surveillance program," the euphemism for its arguably illegal domestic collection activities. The full speech is after the jump. It's worth reading.

The truth is, you've heard much of it before. The repeated jibes at the left. The anger at the New York Times. The unselfconscious grounding of his view in his sense memory of what happened to him on 9/11. The Manichean reductionism; you're with us ("You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever")  Or you're against us ("you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort").  Many references to how ALL programs were FULLY briefed; that EVERYONE who was briefed knows how successful they are; how NO decisions were made in haste.

As I've written before, these arguments seem to be self-justifying and directed at the foreign policy consensus that replaced Cheney's, beginning in the second term of the Bush administration.

CHENEY: Well, good morning, or perhaps good afternoon. It's pretty clear the president served in the Senate and not in the House of Representatives, because, of course, in the House, we have the five-minute rule. But I want to thank all of you and Arthur for allowing me to come spend some time here with you this morning. It's good to be back at AEI, where we have many friends. Lynne, of course, is a long-time scholar here, and I'm looking forward to spending more time here myself as a trustee.

My eight years as vice president were quite a journey, during a time of big events and great decisions. Being the first vice president who had also served as secretary of defense, naturally my duties tended towards national security.

I focused on those challenges day to day, mostly free from the usual political distractions. I had the advantage of being a vice president content with my responsibilities I had and going about my work with no higher ambition.

Today, I'm an even freer man. Your kind invitation brings me here as a private citizen, a career in politics behind me, no elections to win or lose, and no favor to seek.

The responsibilities we carried belong to others now. Although I'm not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do.

We understand the complexities of national security decisions. We understand the pressures that confront a president and his advisers. Above all, we know what is at stake. And through administrations -- and though administrations and policies have changed, the stakes for America have not changed.

Right now, there's considerable debate in this city about the measures our administration took to defend the American people. Today I want to set forth the strategic thinking behind our policies. I do so as one who was there every day of the Bush administration, who supported the policies when they were made and without hesitation would do so again in the same circumstances.

When President Obama makes wise decisions, as I believe he has done in some respects on Afghanistan and in reversing his plan to release incendiary photos, he deserves our support. And when he faults or mischaracterizes the national security decisions we made in the Bush years, he deserves an answer.

The point is not to look backward. Now and for years to come, a lot rides on our president's understanding of the security policies that preceded him. And whatever choices he makes concerning the defense of the country, those choices should not be based on slogans and campaign rhetoric, but on a truthful telling of history.

Our administration always faced its share of criticism. From some quarters, it was always intense. That was especially so in the later years of our term, when the dangers were as serious as ever, but the sense of general alarm after September 11th was a fading memory.

Part of our responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse.

That attack itself was, of course, the most devastating strike in a series of terrorist plots carried out against America at home and abroad. In 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, hoping to bring down the towers from a blast down below. The attacks continued in 1995, with the bombing of U.S. facilities in Riyadh,; the killing of servicemen at Khobar Towers in '96; the attack on our embassies in East Africa in 1998; the murder of American sailors on the USS Cole in 2000; and then, of course, the hijackings of 9/11, and all the grief and loss that we suffered on that day.

9/11 caused everyone to take a serious second look at threats that had been gathering for a while and enemies whose plans were getting bolder and more sophisticated.

Throughout the '90s, America had responded to these attacks, if at all, on an ad hoc basis. The first attack on the World Trade Center was treated as a law enforcement problem, with everything handled after the fact: arrests, indictments, convictions, prison sentences, case closed.

CHENEY: That's how it seemed from a law enforcement perspective, but for the terrorists the case was not closed. For them, it was another offensive strike in their ongoing war against the United States. And it turned their minds to even harder strikes and higher casualties.

9/11 made necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat: what the Congress called "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." From that moment forward, instead of merely preparing to round up the suspects and count the victims after the next attack, we were determined to prevent attacks in the first place.

We could count on almost universal support back then, because everyone understood the environment we were in. We'd just been hit by a foreign enemy, leaving 3,000 Americans dead, more than we lost at Pearl Harbor. In Manhattan, we were staring at 16 acres of ashes. The Pentagon took a direct hit. And the Capitol or the White House were spared only by the Americans on Flight 93, who died bravely and defiantly.

Everyone expected a follow-on attack, and it was our job to stop it. We didn't know what was coming next, but everything we did know in that autumn of 2001 looked bad.

This was the world in which Al Qaida was seeking nuclear technology and A.Q. Khan was selling nuclear technology on the black market. We had the anthrax attack from an unknown source. We had the training camps in Afghanistan and dictators like Saddam Hussein with known ties to Mideast terrorists.

These are just a few of the problems we had on our hands. And foremost on our minds was the prospect of the very worst coming to pass: a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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