We all know that President Obama and his Administration are experts and playing things cool when lesser humans would be wracked with panic. After all, everyone in the press, along with his/her pet canary, tells us as much. But there is one person who is consistently able to take the Administration out of its comfort zone whenever he speaks up.
That person, of course, is former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Every time Cheney decides to speak out about current events–especially when it comes to the issue of foreign and national security policy–he is able to discombobulate the Obama Administration, which sends out an all-hands-on-deck message to its personnel to combat the former Vice President’s commentary. And yet, for whatever reason, it’s Cheney who usually comes out with the upper hand in any debate. Last year, when the Obama Administration was postponing the implementation of a troop surge policy on Afghanistan, Cheney very publicly accused the Administration of “dithering.” Team Obama was infuriated, but the message stuck. I suppose it should come as no surprise that the White House is obsessed with trying to push back against Cheney’s comments every time he makes a public statement. The former Vice President has clearly gotten into the Administration’s collective head space; not a mean feat for someone with chronically low public approval ratings. So why does the Administration feel the need to engage in rapid response battles with an unpopular former Vice President? After all, if Dick Cheney is the pariah that Democrats think he is, wouldn’t it just be better to ignore him?
The most famous confrontation last year between Cheney and the Administration came in the form of a debate over interrogation policy. When the former Vice President announced his intention to give a speech on the subject at the American Enterprise Institute, the White House rushed President Obama out to preempt Cheney with a speech of his own; so afraid was the White House of leaving Cheney’s comments unanswered. As I wrote last year, I am against torture, and believe that practices like waterboarding constitute torture. But while many people agree with the Administration’s stance on this issue, that didn’t stop Cheney from seizing the initiative in the debate, and using it to drive the discussion on interrogation policy, and on national security policy as a whole.
While the President excels at making a speech, the former Vice President excels in participating in a debate. Agree or disagree with him, he actually engaged the substance of the issue, and actively took on the Administration over interrogation policy. This allowed Cheney to point out the holes and inconsistencies in the Obama position on interrogation policy. While Barack Obama sought to dazzle with his rhetoric, Dick Cheney sought to persuade with his.
Whether one buys Cheney’s positions, or discounts them, this propensity for debate clearly unsettles the Obama Administration. I guess that is why Cheney’s decision to go on ABC’s This Week this past Sunday forced the Administration to send out Vice President Biden, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones to rebut his comments. That didn’t stop Cheney from landing some telling blows, like ridiculing Biden for his recent statement that the Obama Administration deserves credit for the improving situation in Iraq–despite the fact that both President Obama and Vice President Biden opposed the very troop surge which helped the situation improve. To be sure, Cheney sided with the Obama Administration on certain issues as well; stating his support for both the Afghan troop surge, and for the Administration’s laudable decision to end the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. But he was also able to lay out a clear and distinct alternative vision on national security policy that could help contrast with less-than-successful Obama Administration approaches to the formulation and implementation of national security policy.
In fact, in light of the recent capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, it would be good to have the former Vice President back on the Sunday talk shows, as he might wish to point out that Mullah Baradar appears to have been subjected to extraordinary rendition. Indeed, I could not imagine a better and more informative debate on the subject than if the former and current Vice Presidents were to appear on the same program in order to discuss whether the Obama Administration is in favor of subjecting Mullah Baradar to the “frequently brutal” interrogation practices of his Pakistani captors. The former Vice President could put the question to the current Vice President, and perhaps we might get ourselves a straight answer in reply. Of course, I have no expectation whatsoever that the Obama Administration will say or do anything in order to deter the Pakistanis from interrogating Mullah Baradar in especially stringent ways, which naturally raises the question of whether the Administration’s policies are really all that different from the ones advocated by Dick Cheney when the chips are down.
I should probably point out as well that my dream of having the former and current Vice President debate will probably remain just that; a dream. While the Obama Administration is anxious to refute Dick Cheney each time he speaks, they are probably not anxious to send someone to debate him in person. It seems very clear who intimidates whom.