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A Worthy Debate
What Obama and Cheney Got Right

By David S. Broder
Sunday, May 24, 2009

That was a rare and splendid moment when the president of the United States and the former vice president offered their sharply contrasting views on maintaining national security in back-to-back televised addresses last week.

Had the speeches Barack Obama and Dick Cheney delivered Thursday morning been carried in prime time by all the television networks, they would have been an even bigger contribution to public understanding of the linked issues of Guantanamo, detainee treatment and the search for accountability.

But those who saw cable coverage of Obama at the National Archives and Cheney at the American Enterprise Institute heard two men, with deep immersion in the topic, giving strong, clear and passionate expression to their views.

I found myself thinking about how much more satisfying and enlightening this impromptu exchange was than the presidential or vice presidential debates in which the same two men participated when they were running for office. The strict time limits imposed in those encounters, and the consequent reliance on sound-bite answers, prevented the kind of sustained argument that we saw from both.

In his interview with Newsweek's Jon Meacham, Obama said that he had learned from the campaign that the American people "not only have a toleration but also a hunger for explanation and complexity, and a willingness to acknowledge hard problems. I think one of the biggest mistakes that is made in Washington is this notion you have to dumb things down for the public."

Cheney, too, is scornful of the simplistic formulas that politicians tend to favor -- one reason he was never a big hit on the campaign circuit. But he is as serious about governing as Obama is, and as confident in his own judgments.

So what we saw were two men arguing vital issues without the kind of disguised demagoguery that cheapens too many campaigns.

I thought Cheney's strongest point was his assertion that Obama had "no plan" for handling the 240 occupants of the Guantanamo Bay prison when he announced, soon after taking office, that the facility would be closed within a year.

That announcement, fulfilling an explicit campaign pledge, symbolized a sharp break from the previous Republican administration and won Obama praise from European allies and many of his core supporters here at home.

But by placing an easy gesture ahead of a thought-out strategy, Obama left himself vulnerable to the backlash we have seen -- and allowed critics such as Cheney to question his seriousness in handling sensitive security questions.

Obama's speech -- with its careful delineation of the five categories of detainees -- showed that he has now devoted serious thought to the consequences of his decision to close the prison. But a specific plan for handling the hardest cases is still weeks or months away. Better he had addressed that question before the public and congressional movement spread to keep them out of "my back yard."

But if Cheney was right about there being no plan, Obama had the better case on the underlying question of how America's basic values, including respect for the rule of law, can be applied when terrorists threaten.

Proof is missing that would let laymen judge Cheney's assertion that the methods Obama now has banned were necessary to prevent a second Sept. 11. Avoiding interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which historically have been classified as torture, not only clears our conscience and improves our reputation; it protects our own troops when they are captured.

Obama was also impressive in taking on the panicky populism among lawmakers of both parties who quickly kowtowed to the demand that no terrorists be moved into prisons within the United States. He has shown this backbone before when he stopped the cries to punish the AIG bonus recipients. His calm testimony to the security of American jails was exactly what the situation needed.

And he is brave also in joining Cheney in opposing the calls, emanating mainly from his fellow Democrats, for a "truth commission" to search out and presumably punish those whose security practices are now being changed.

Strong as their disagreements on other issues, Cheney and Obama are as one on that question. And they are right.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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