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Obama and Cheney debate ends and means on terror

May 21, 2009 |  9:46 am


It was being billed by the media as the heavyweight national security debate that the country was craving. But the verbal battle between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney had a feel of deja vu.

It was more than the specifics, the charges and countercharges that both men have often used in recent weeks. It was the philosophical split that has marked politics for centuries: Does the end justify the means or are there ethical limits to all human actions?

Obama was very clear in arguing that the rule of law demanded that the United States abandon enhanced interrogation, close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and establish five categories to deal with the estimated 240 prisoners still there. Surrounded by the documents that explain the United States -- the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence -- Obama repeatedly cited American core values to explain his policy and why a break with the Bush administration’s was needed.

It was vintage Obama combining his power to...

... invoke ideas with the practical need to solve a problem that has seemed intractable.


Cheney, speaking at a conservative Washington think tank, was unapologetic and unswayed.
For him and other conservatives, the issue was simple: We did what we had to in order to prevent the possibility of another attack similar to 9/11, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.The full text of the vice president's speech is now here.

It is libel to equate “enhanced interrogation techniques” with torture, he said. Those who carried out the questioning are heroes, not war criminals, because no additional attacks took place. In short, the end justified the action, which he insisted were legal under the Constitution.

Cheney opposed Obama's plan to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba because it represents a danger when detainees are brought to U.S. soil. Not surprisingly he cited Democrats who also oppose Obama’s plan.

His prose was blunter, but there were two Republicans whose ghosts hovered over Cheney’s shoulders.
The first was Abraham Lincoln, venerated for freeing the slaves, but who could play hardball politics with the best of them.

"If I were to try and read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business," Lincoln said in 1862 after he was sharply criticized in Congress for
military blunders during the Civil War.

“I do the best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I am right would make no difference," Lincoln said in the classic political formulation of how the end justifies the means.

And of course there was Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who helped reshape the modern Republican party as a conservative force.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said in accepting the GOP presidential nod. “Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

-- Michael Muskal

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Top: Obama at the National Archives building in Washington on 21 May 2009. EPA / Matthew Cavanaugh. Middle: Cheney speaks at the American Enterprise Institute on May 21, 2009 in Washington. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)