TOPICS > Politics

Obama, Cheney Speeches Reframe Debate on Security Policy

May 21, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
Loading the player...
After dueling speeches from President Obama and former Vice President Cheney on security policy, columnists and analysts weigh the shape of the debate on detainees and other issues.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff takes the story from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For some analysis of today’s two speeches, we’re joined by Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute in Washington, he’s also a staff writer for the New Yorker; Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus; presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University; and Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.

Richard Norton Smith, to you first. I don’t remember anything like this. How unusual is it to have a just-stepped-down vice president challenging a president to have dueling speeches like this?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it’s highly unusual, not so much in the criticism itself as in the timing of the criticism. Your point about just-stepped-down goes to the heart of this.

Fifty years ago, when the Bay of Pigs disaster took place, a 100 years — 100 days — it may have seemed like 100 years — into the Kennedy presidency, former Vice President Richard Nixon stepped forward and praised the president, lent support, as did his boss.

There is a sort of gentleman’s code that exists in which former presidents and vice presidents withhold their fire for a certain indeterminate period of time.

On the other hand, that code works both ways. The incoming administration is also expected to hold its fire, in effect, regarding its predecessors. And so, in the case of Dick Cheney, who’s always been a unique vice president — this was a vice president from the day he was chosen when he made it clear he would not be a candidate for the presidency himself and was therefore liberated in many ways from the political constraints and restraints that ordinarily govern a vice president, it’s hardly surprising that, as a former vice president, Dick Cheney would be breaking some of the rules that he broke politically as a vice president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Steve Coll, what we’ve figured out today — or went back and looked at — is that the vice president’s speech was scheduled first and it was only a few days after that the president scheduled his speech. I mean, it’s almost as if the White House thought it might benefit from a contrast.

STEVE COLL, New America Foundation: I think you’re right. I think they do welcome the contrast. And the president, though not directly, implied why in his speech.

He pointed out, for example, that the last nominee of the Republicans, John McCain, disagrees with the vice president about these enhanced interrogation techniques, as the vice president calls them and John McCain referred to them as torture.

I think, in general, the White House regards the former vice president as isolated from the mainstream of his own party, never mind from the electorate, and that the president benefits from the tonal as well as the substantive contrast.

Different views on speeches

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
I think of this speech as a building block, really, in the education process, explaining why we need to close Guantanamo, the problems that were created by the existence of Guantanamo, and the failure of treating people fairly there...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth Marcus, what do you make of what we heard from the two of them today?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Well, I thought it was a fascinating moment, and I was actually glad that they were back to back, though I think there were other things at play, for example, the increasing consternation on the Hill about the request for funds that were denied to close Guantanamo.

But I thought we saw the president today -- I thought it was a very powerful and very intelligent speech. And I thought he actually spoke to the American people the way he said he wanted us to speak to the people in his inaugural, which is as adults.

And he talked of these are not easy choices. And he is walking a very thin and high tightrope between the people on the left of his party, who are furious at him over what they see as caving to the right, and the folks on the more conservative side of his party and beyond and the other party who think of him as a sellout to terrorists.

And I thought -- I think he is walking a very -- I don't agree with every step he's taken, but a very smart line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Walking a smart line. Byron York, you see it differently.

BYRON YORK, Washington Examiner: I thought it was the wrong speech for today. I mean, the Senate just voted 90-6 to deny the president money to close down Guantanamo. That ban will extend until September 30th, end of this fiscal year, which gives him between October 1st and his self-imposed deadline of January 22nd of next year to close it down.

The senators -- 50 Democrats were among those who voted against the president. Now, it's not that they want to keep Guantanamo open, but they felt they couldn't vote for the money....

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifty, 5-0.

BYRON YORK: Fifty, 5-0. They felt they couldn't vote for it without having a plan, because the president had not submitted a plan. So this was a time to actually submit a plan. And he didn't have to do it today, but it has to be done soon.

And instead, he gave them this lovely speech, but without the kind of plan he was looking for, and he even admitted when he was talking about the various categories of prisoners, he said, you know, the hardest ones are the ones who we're never going to try and we're never going to let go. And he really said, "I don't quite know what to do with them."

So this was not the concrete speech I think that members of Congress were looking for.

RUTH MARCUS: But I don't think this is the moment -- if this were his only speech on the subject, it would have been a failure as a speech. But I think of this speech as a building block, really, in the education process, explaining why we need to close Guantanamo, the problems that were created by the existence of Guantanamo, and the failure of treating people fairly there, and chapter one of a continuing narrative.

He's not ready to talk about his specific solutions yet, and probably people wouldn't be ready for them. And, meanwhile, they're getting all sorts of incoming things on the same issue: What about those photos? What about the torture memos? What about closing Guantanamo? And he put it into a sort of coherent hole.

Obama shaping public opinion

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
I think what this president excels at -- and we saw it today par excellence -- is framing the debate or reframing the debate not only along the lines that he's comfortable with, but which in effect define the middle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, interestingly, Steve Coll, I don't believe the vice president said very much about -- Vice President Dick Cheney said very much about Guantanamo.

STEVE COLL: Well, after all, President Bush said that he wanted to close Guantanamo, too. That was the declared policy of the Bush administration. What the vice president said was it turns out it's very complicated. Well, President Obama went through chapter and verse about why it's complicated, and he did outline the direction of the plan.

There are two pieces of legislation he now needs to create or negotiate: one, to re-establish plausible military commissions; and the other, apparently, to establish a new system under American constitutional law, national security courts for detention parallel to the surveillance courts that we already have in existence.

The full purpose of that, if it wasn't clear in the speech, both would be very complicated negotiations with Congress. I don't know what their prospects realistically are, but he did make clear that's where he's headed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was something accomplished today, Richard, from that respect?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think so. I think what this president excels at -- and we saw it today par excellence -- is framing the debate or reframing the debate not only along the lines that he's comfortable with, but which in effect define the middle.

For a long time in this country, we assumed there wasn't such a thing as the middle. You know, we were 50-50 red and blue. And this whole presidency -- in some ways, he came to power asserting that that assumption was wrong, that there was a large what used to be called sensible center.

And I think the educator-in-chief role is one that he plays very well, and I think that's what today was all about.

I do wonder. I mean, here is an administration that's about to make a Supreme Court nomination, has the budget, you know, in process. There's a...

RUTH MARCUS: The health care thing.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: ... how much they want to -- yes, the health care thing. How much time do they really want, even if they do get a short-term bump in the polls by the contrast with an unpopular former vice president, how much time do they really want to devote to this issue?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Byron York, while the president was calling for middle ground, Vice President Cheney was saying there's no room for the center, that there's only room for the two arguments on either side.

BYRON YORK: He didn't talk that much about Guantanamo. In fact, President Bush did say he wanted to close Guantanamo and then, after that, he said, "Anybody got any ideas?" because there was no good way to do it.

So the vice president clearly was defending, I think, most the enhanced interrogation techniques and their effectiveness. He called again for the release of these classified documents, which he says will show that these interrogation techniques were effective as kind of a bookend to President Obama's already releasing the memos that justified those techniques.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Richard's point that the president today -- that the one thing he did was to reset, reframe the dialogue?

BYRON YORK: Well, public opinion is absolutely crucial here. And the Republican pollsters I have talked to believe that Americans had not really focused on this idea of closing Guantanamo to the extent of them coming here, the inmates coming here.

And you saw on Sunday Sen. Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia, sterling military record, gives the party a lot of credibility on national security issues, there is a community of Uyghurs, Chinese Muslims, in Virginia. He's asked, can these 17 who are in Guantanamo now, can they come to Virginia? And he said, no, absolutely not.

So public opinion is absolutely essential here. And I think that's probably the biggest reason that the president gave a speech today.

Defining the 'middle ground'

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
There has to be a middle ground. And reasonable people can differ about where that middle ground is, but I thought that the vice president truly undercut the case for his side by saying that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are we any closer to resolution?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, not much, but I do think that the point that the president made that we're not going to be sort of building Quonset huts in your local park to put terrorists in, that we do have supermax facilities that do hold people who are as dangerous as these folks are who may be coming to our shores.

And I thought that, to me -- I just want to make one point about the vice president's speech, because the most disappointing part to me and kind of infuriating was where he suggested that there could be no middle ground in the war on terror.

Well, then, where are the limits? Why don't we torture? Why don't we round up people without any process? Why don't we hold them forever? Why do we even bother to have these military commissions?

There has to be a middle ground. And reasonable people can differ about where that middle ground is, but I thought that the vice president truly undercut the case for his side by saying that.

BYRON YORK: The president's making a huge bet. The entire rationale for this, as he said it -- it was said throughout the campaign -- is that Guantanamo has lowered our standing in the world and it's been a recruitment tool for al-Qaida and other terrorists to get in, to take up jihad against the United States.

Now, the question that he's going to have to -- we'll see the answer to is, if you live in the Middle East or if you live in Pakistan and you cheered when you saw the World Trade Centers come down, you're angry that the heroes of jihad are being held without justice in Guantanamo, is it going to be OK if they're held without justice in Colorado? Is that going to be OK?

Just closing Guantanamo, is that going to change this opinion that allegedly is the reason for the whole mess we're in?

RUTH MARCUS: But that's not what he's talking about. I mean, the fundamental point that the president is making is that we are no longer going to hold people without some process, without unilaterally, without -- we need court oversight, congressional buy-in. That's his fundamental point.

Difficult political maneuvers ahead

Steve Coll
New America Foundation
The president's now going to have to flesh out this outline. And he surfaced politics that are really difficult politics. The politics of transferring prisoners under any circumstances from Guantanamo, even into supermax, that's lousy politics...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll, where does this argument go from here? Did either side come out a little bit ahead? Was either side set back by today? Where do we head after today's speeches?

STEVE COLL: Well, the president's now going to have to flesh out this outline. And he surfaced politics that are really difficult politics. The politics of transferring prisoners under any circumstances from Guantanamo, even into supermax, that's lousy politics, as the reaction has already demonstrated.

But even more difficult, there was the educator-in-chief today. There was also the constitutional-lawyer-in-chief. He has a very detailed grasp of the constitutional design that is now ahead, and he's going to have to negotiate for it, both in the military commissions -- and he's going to expect challenges before the Supreme Court about whatever he comes up with there -- national security courts, a new system in our Constitution for prolonged detention, that's going to be challenged.

He understands these issues. I'm not sure how many constructive partners he has on Capitol Hill, especially if the surrounding politics involves the transfer of dangerous people into local states.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is -- remember the Mariel boatlift? It was one of the factors that contributed to the undoing of Jimmy Carter. It is always easier for members of Congress to say, "No, you know, I don't want these people."

And so the burden falls upon the president to persuade not only the country that this is a moral imperative, but much more difficult to persuade members of his own party, not to mention the other party, in practical terms that these people can be brought to our shores safely. And, again, that's going to take an enormous amount of time and presidential effort.

STEVE COLL: If I could say one thing...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick, 15 seconds.

STEVE COLL: What we saw today is that there were 240 case files the president examined. He's now gone through them. Like everyone who's seen them before, it is really a complicated mess. That's in essence what he was bringing to the American people today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We're going to have to end it here. Thank you all. Steve Coll, Ruth Marcus, Richard Norton Smith, Byron York, thank you.