Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Darth Cheney?

(I just need to say...I was going to use a photoshopped picture of Cheney as Dr. Evil, but I couldn't resist the reality of him on a Segway.)

Our former vice president has been doing a lot of talking recently. About torture. About President Obama. About terrorists. About lots of stuff.

Last night, on Greta Van Susteren's show, Mr. Cheney said some of the more interesting and unexpected things we've heard yet. He is, apparently, for example, in favor of gay marriage...at least in the sense that he believes states should be able to decide for themselves whether or not it should be legal. I didn't really expect that.

What really got my attention, though, was his thoughts on the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda:
"on the question of whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11, there was never any evidence to prove that. There was some reporting early on, for example, that Mohammed Atta had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official. But that was never borne out."
I find this statement...alarming. It's alarming especially because the connection between the two was one of the key rationales for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is the same man who, as recently as 2007, said:
"[Abu Musab al-Zarqawi] took up residence [in Iraq] before we ever launched into Iraq, organized the al-Qaeda operations inside Iraq before we even arrived on the scene and then, of course, led the charge for Iraq until we killed him last June."
Does this divergence merely represent an unfortunate misjudgment about a crucial detail in an important national security decision? Or does it suggest something more sinister? I'm bothered either way.

In October 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq" by a substantial margin. Among other things, this joint resolution listed the numerous reasons for invading Iraq and displacing Saddam Hussein's regime. The several page document breaks down, in my opinion, into two main categories of reasons: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the harboring of and collaboration with terrorists and terrorist organizations. Regarding the latter, the resolution said:
"Whereas members of al Qaida, an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States, its citizens, and interests, including the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq; Whereas Iraq continues to aid and harbor other international terrorist organizations, including organizations that threaten the lives and safety of United States citizens."
The Bush administration proposed the Iraq legislation after having vigorously argued the case for WMDs and a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq. It's interesting, therefore, that Mr. Cheney would so flippantly dismiss the very same claims that were a bedrock concept in the set of policies that got the United States enmeshed in the internal strife of another sovereign nation half a world away.

I suppose I'm being a typical liberal in getting worked up about this. A defendant of the Bush administration(although there are few) might accuse me of being critical simply because President Bush is a Republican. Perhaps. Perhaps I would be quick to jump to the defense of a similar Obama administration decision. I can't say for sure.

Mr. Cheney's seeming position change is bringing up a somewhat deeper issue that remains relevant to any national security decision, including the current Guantanamo Bay issue: how far should a nation go in order to maintain the safety of its citizens? As disturbing as it is to think about the sequence of events and ideology that brought us to war in Iraq, I admit that I believe that even Darth Cheney had his version of the nation's best interests in mind when he advised the president to invade.

And even though it now seems that the Bush administration arranged information to meet their needs and convince the world of threats that turned out to be non-imminent, I remain convinced that the underlying motivation was some twisted form of patriotism. The former vice president's reversal on al-Qaeda's involvement in 9/11 suggests either gross incompetence or outright subterfuge but not anti-American scheming.

It's times like this, with issues like this, that remind me how little desire I have to be president. I don't want to be the one to decide what means are justified in protecting our way of life. It tires me to think of the weight of the choices that must be made to keep us strong and robust. What if we remain true to our principles and yet fail in the effort to stay safe? What if New York or Chicago is leveled by a nuclear explosion because we didn't extract information from a terrorist that could have stopped it from happening? Is that potential cost worth our ideological purity? These are questions that Dick Cheney has the answers to; I'm not sure that I do.

President Obama seems to have a different set of answers:
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations...We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
Is he right? Should we trust him? Is he even trustworthy? Is he naive? The election focused heavily on those questions, but the American people seem to have decided that he has the right perspective for the job. It is remarkable that the electorate decided this even in the midst of being more fearful than at any other time in the last 20 years. I guess only time will tell whether or not that choice was justified. In the meantime, it's probably useful to let go of the feelings about past decisions.

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