Does Dick Cheney owe President Barack Obama an apology?
Ever since Obama entered the White House, the former vice president has been decrying him as a weak leader whose actions place the nation at risk. He's been the lead-singer of the Obama-is-bad-for-national-security mantra on the right. Yet in the wake of the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's suburban compound, Cheney has not rescinded his previous assaults on the president.
The ex-veep did release a statement hailing the operation as "a tremendous achievement for the military and intelligence professionals who carried out this important mission. Their tireless work since 9/11 has made this achievement possible, and enabled us to capture or kill thousands of al Qaeda terrorists and many of their leaders." (Cheney did not rush into the debate over whether enhanced interrogation techniques—or torture—had yielded the intelligence nuggets that led to Bin Laden's comfortable whereabouts.)
Almost as an aside, in that statement, Cheney added one line about the president, "I also want to congratulate President Obama and the members of his national security team." But there was, of course, no reference to Cheney's past criticism of Obama and no recognition that Obama had, if only in this episode, performed ably as commander in chief. After all, any such acknowledgment, however slight, would undermine over two years of Cheney's Obama-bashing.
But let's roll the tape. In 2009, after Obama was in office less than a month, Cheney told Politico that there was a "high probability" that terrorists would attempt a nuclear or biological attack in the coming years and that, thanks to Obama's policies, the odds were better that such an assault would succeed. He also said, "When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry."
This was no hint: Cheney was accusing Obama of caring more about process than the security of the American people. That was a profoundly serious charge. The former vice president was not merely engaging in a debate over Obama's national security policies; he was suggesting that his adminstration fretted more about terrorists' civil liberties than the lives of American citizens. Cheney's real charge was not that Obama was wrong (any leader can make an ill-advised policy choice), but that Obama really wasn't devoted to defending the United States. Cheney was not merely arguing about the best way to counter terrorists; he was trying to delegitimize Obama as commander in chief.
A month later, Cheney, in an interview with CNN, continued this line of attack: "Now [Obama] is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack." Again, Cheney went beyond arguing policy. He questioned Obama's motives, accusing the president and his aides of not being sufficiently concerned about terrorists: "They are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required."
Now, how would Cheney know that? At that time, the CIA, in response to a request from the president, was actually coming up with a revved-up plan to find Bin Laden. The Obama administration also was intensifying its drone war against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Later in the year, after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of a Northwest Airlines plane, Cheney again went on the offensive. In a statement, the former vice president derided Obama: "He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won't be at war." He charged that Obama "pretends we aren't" at war and once more proclaimed that Obama had made America "less safe." He was still pushing the spin that Obama did not consider national security a priority: "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war? It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn't fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency: social transformation, the restructuring of American society." This was no subtle dig. Cheney was contending that Obama was placing his policy agenda—health care reform?—above his duty to protect the United States. It was a polite way of calling him a traitor.