Jack Goldsmith, the onetime head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice, calls it the "Cheney fallacy." In his comprehensive article about Barack Obama's national security doctrine, Goldsmith writes that the main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations
concern[s] not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.
I doubt that many White House officials disagree, although they point out that many of the institutionalized decisions that Goldsmith sees are works in progress, and that the executive is inherently limited in his ability to quickly reverse course on many aspects of national security policy. The critique embedded in Goldsmith's essay, which is probably the best account to date on the subject, is that Dick Cheney's approach to policy and his mastery of the national security apparatus of the government led the administration to ignore avenues that would have led them to the same policies, albeit with fewer obstacles.
Indeed, it is hard to find a Bush administration official who disagrees with Goldsmith at this point, save for friends and allies of Mr. Cheney's. That's because, from the middle of the President's second term until the end, the Bush administration began the process of legitimation. In some cases, their hands were forced, like when the New York Times revealed details of the National Security Agency's domestic collection program. But in many cases, especially as regards detainee policy and diplomacy, key administration principles decided to change course. Donald Rumsfeld was belatedly fired; Condoleezza Rice aggressively worked to repair America's working relationship with its allies; enhanced interrogation techniques were abandoned; the U.S. government sat down with Iran, and so on . Don't take my word for it.
"I think what's interesting is that, in some way, Dick Cheney actually lost these arguments inside the Bush administration. And so he may won early with Colin Powell and Condi Rice, but over the last two or three years....I think there was a recognition that these enhanced interrogation techniques that were being applied -- that they had applied early on -- were potentially counterproductive, that a posture of never talking to our enemies, of unilateral action, of framing national security only in terms of the application of force, often unilateral -- that that wasn't producing."
I quote here President Obama, speaking to Newsweek's Jon Meacham. Obama continued: "I think a lot of these arguments were settled even before we took over the White House."
So why is Dick Cheney targeting President Obama? It's hard to find a Republican who believes that Obama is fundamentally making the country less safe with his national security decisions, even as individual choices -- the vow to close Guantanamo, the decision to release memos about interrogation -- have come in for criticism.
The disatisfaction with Obama by the broad civil libertarian left -- and it's not the hard left, but a broad cross-section of liberal elites -- is one indication of this. Obama spent an hour and a half yesterday trying to contextualize his actions for an audience of civil libertarians. He was not successful.
Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections. He is arguing with Republican Party elites, most of whom are willing to criticize individual decisions Obama has made but who can't find fault with his general approach to terrorism.