The Common Good

Obama and Cheney: Dueling Visions of America

Sojomail - May 28, 2009


We sent them food, fertilizer, factories, more than we give our own poor people, and all they pay us back with is this nuclear test.

- South Korean Lee Soon-hwan, a 30-year-old office worker, on North Korea's nuclear test Monday. (Source: The New York Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Obama and Cheney: Dueling Visions of America

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Last week President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered back-to-back speeches on national security.

In these speeches, we witnessed a rare moment of clarity, a moral clash in the interpretation of reality, and one of the starkest contrasts in competing visions I have ever seen for the values, direction, and policies of our nation. In short, there was a choice offered to us for exactly what kind of country and people we want to be -- and what America will mean for us and for the world.

First, President Obama offered a dramatically new direction for achieving national security, after the “misguided experiment” of the Bush years. In a very powerful symbol, Obama chose the National Archives as the venue for this major address, pointing to the historic documents that are kept here -- the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights -- noting that these documents are “the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world,” and clearly suggesting that they have been violated in the policies of the U.S. over the past several years, policies that included the systematic violation of legal rights and even the use of torture.

Just minutes later, former Vice President Cheney rose to speak at the American Enterprise Institute to aggressively defend and forcefully argue for a confident continuation of those very policies, and to vigorously attack the “contrived indignation and phony moralizing” of those who have critiqued the policies of the Bush/Cheney years (which some suggest should be called the Cheney/Bush years). Even Cheney admitted the “great dividing line” that stands between these two visions of national security. Candy Crowley of CNN called the dueling speeches “a tale of two universes.” And they were.

The president began by saying that

... my single most important responsibility as president is to keep the American people safe.

But, he went on to say that

... I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. ... I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset ...

He spoke of the “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques” that

... undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. ... In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts ...

And, on closing the prison at Guantanamo:

Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world. ...
[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, began and ended with 9-11 as the justification for everything that followed: “9-11 made necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat ...” He defended the “enhanced interrogation” by arguing that:

The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, and the right thing to do. ... to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.

And Cheney’s view of values was that

... no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them. ... For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings.

My father was a Midwestern evangelical Christian, and an Eisenhower Republican. His core values never changed, but his politics did as his party moved further and further to the right, and his children moved to embrace faith-inspired social justice. He was still alive for the election of 2004, and after a retired men’s breakfast sponsored by the Detroit church that he and my mother had started, somebody suggested that the group go hear Dick Cheney who was speaking that night in nearby Ann Arbor. That was a mistake. My dad coldly replied, “I wouldn’t go hear Dick Cheney if he was the last speaker on the planet. Dick Cheney is evil.” My father was known by everyone for his kindness and generosity, and nobody would have called him judgmental. But his judgments of people, in particular, were unusually good.

I will leave the judgment of Dick Cheney’s soul to God, who alone is in the position to render that judgment on all of us. But I will say the vision of America that Cheney offers is decidedly evil, and has helped to spread even more evil around the world. Cheney represents the dark side of America, a view of the world dominated by fear and self-righteousness—always a deadly combination. It accepts no real reflection or self-examination; the evil in the world is always external, and the threat ever present. There is only certainty, and never humility. And, when the dark side goes unchecked, what it leads to is a state of permanent warfare, which will only be won by using any means necessary, and where the ends always justify the means. At the end of his breathtaking speech, the former vice president was so full of admiration and praise for those who used “enhanced interrogation” against America’s suspected enemies that you got the impression he would happily preside over those brutal sessions himself.

But at their best, American values are different than that, and, as the new president said, we did things during the last several years with a “framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass,” and that “too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.”

A fundamental change is now being made in American policies, at which the rest of the world -- and many Americans who had despaired over the course of their country -- will breathe a deep sigh of great relief. We are seeing the beginning of the hope that healing will come to some of the damage to the world and to America that has been done by the rampage over our most important values.

The good news about these dueling moral visions of America is that the first was offered by a young new president who has a personal priority to change the image of America in the world -- to the thundering applause of an audience at the National Archives. The second was offered by an aging figure of an old and imperial view of American leadership -- rather, domination -- in the world, which he wants to defend by any means necessary, to an increasingly marginal right-wing tank with only tepid applause.

The first is now the governing vision of American foreign policy, while the second is now a politically defeated ideology. Thanks be to God!

I urge you to watch both speeches: President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

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