Obama's Long War Against Cheneyism?


Yes, there's been a lot to think about and assimilate this past week. With Obama, the surface decisions - the tactical maneuvers - can often obscure the direction beneath. Has he betrayed the gays? Has he back-tracked on torture? What's he doing deferring to Gates and Odierno on the torture and abuse photos? Why's he keeping the military commissions - even with far more protections for defendants? How does he justify continuing to detain prisoners who are completely innocent but may have been radicalized by living in the Gitmo torture-and-detention camp? And why pick general McChrystal - a man whose history of successes in the terror war remains in the shadows but whose mistakes (Camp Nama, the Tillman debacle) are much more public and brand him as a Bush-Cheney figure?

I cannot answer these questions definitively and readers know I embrace the model of letting my own thoughts and those of readers and fellow bloggers map out the discussion - back and forth - in real time.  But I'm beginning to think that the cooptation of Huntsman, the retention of Gates, the choice of McChrystal, and the refusal to be baited by Cheney into leading a legal prosecution of past war crimes (with the option of following through later if he is forced to) reveals a cunning we miss at our peril.

Take McChrystal. The Dish has tried to air as much as we can find out about him. What's undeniable is the awe with which many in the military treat him, Petraeus' support and Gates' enthusiasm. I'm deeply troubled by the legacy of prisoner abuse - but I'm also deeply impressed with the man's obvious talent, service, determination, patriotism and ruthlessness. It seems to me that a man like McChrystal is indeed a huge asset, if used ethically and intelligently, in a war to defeat al Qaeda. A man who successfully located and killed a monster like Zarqawi is the kind of man we need to find and kill Osama bin Laden. His entanglement in abuse of prisoners places him in the forefront of all that went wrong under Bush and Cheney - but if Obama has unequivocally ended that abuse and McChrystal is idling in the Pentagon, it seems to me a shrewd choice to show that such ruthlessness, if clearly divorced from betrayal of our core values, is what we need.

What Obama understands is that the war on terror is real, that we need to win both ideologically and militarily, and that we have lost a lot of ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I remain worried that this war has become unwinnable, its goals unclear, its rationale more and more an attempt to prevent the unpreventable. But it remains a fact that Obama campaigned to wage war successfully in Afghanistan and Pakistan - and he cannot exactly withdraw precipitously now. Petraeus, an honorable man whose stance on abuse and torture has long been unequivocally on the side of the angels, backs McChrystal. A combination of better Petraeus-style counter-insurgency strategy with McChrystal special ops' targeting of Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan might be the way to advance. It certainty would be an advance on these drone attacks, which apear to be winning battles and losing the war. I don't know, but I'm perfectly prepared to give the president the benefit of the doubt on this, as I did the last one at this juncture. And I think all of us who supported him last fall should - for the current summer military campaign at the very least.

But look forward and see the potential of Obama's offensive against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Af-Pak. Imagine the political and security impact of actual success in that war. Imagine if a president who eschews torture captures Osama bin Laden, or devastates al Qaeda's infrastructure without succumbing to the pathologies of Cheney. Isn't that in the long run the best way to defang the threat that Cheney and Cheneyism pose to this country's future?

I don't believe we can move forward without accounting for the war crimes of the past. With every passing day, the evidence of real criminality in the past accumulates. But I also understand that so long as Cheney and his ship of macho, torturing fools get to posture as the only ruthless prosecutors of the terror war, they will have a card to play to get back into power. They have no shame and no ethical boundaries. And so the only truly profound way to defeat them and what they represent is to show that a humane ruthlessness is still possible in the fight against al Qaeda - which remains a threat rather than a phantom.

With Gates and Huntsman and Petraeus and McChrystal, Obama is coopting the best of the Bush legacy, while separating it from the callow cynicism of the Cheney-Rove-Kristol axis.

Cheney is taking the torture bait from Obama even as Obama refuses brilliantly to take the terror bait from Cheney. Obama is resisting the red-blue reductionism of the past while forging a new and powerful center. And the more Cheney and Kristol and Limbaugh posture as the future of the GOP, the worse they will do and the more likely it is that more sane and sensible conservatives will eventually fight back.

At least that's one reading of recent developments. I may, of course, be wrong or projecting false hopes onto a new president (which wouldn't be the first time). But if I'm rightly understanding this strategy, and it is followed through with care, it's a very potent one. And if Obama can defuse and defang the Dolschstoss right, if he can outflank them on the terror war, if he can both appeal to the world to look at America in a new light, while also pursuing the covert war on terror with more ruthlessness and focus than Bush - then he will not only destroy the Republican rump, he will help heal this country.

In the end, that's what those of us insistent on the torture issue are saying. We want to undercut and undermine Jihadism as we stymie and forestall terror. And we want to retain our soul as a defender of human rights. Cheney's choice is a false one; and history will damn him for presenting it as true. The path of healing will, of course, not be as simple as some of us once hoped. A polity as polluted as this one will take time to recover, but Obama's continued grace and seriousness are arguably the best option we have.

Know hope.

(Photo: the president yesterday. By Mandel Ngan/Getty.)