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D.C. Smackdown: Advantage Cheney

Pejman Yousefzadeh is a Senior Editor of The New Ledger.

Before weighing in on the split-screen showdown that occurred today in Washington, let me be clear about the views I have on the questions before us: I write as one who believes that waterboarding is counterproductive at best, and torture at worst.

I write as one who believes that torture rarely is justified. And I write as one who believes that the patient and ingratiating questioning of terrorists conducted by the FBI has done more to give the United States actionable intelligence than have the interrogation methods implemented by the CIA--methods that were used by people who meant well, but who did not get as much valuable intelligence as did their FBI counterparts.

It would be logical to assume, therefore, that I would be open to many of the arguments President Obama made concerning our anti-terror strategy, our system of prosecuting terrorist suspects, and our methods of interrogation. But I would be lying if I didn't say that I believe former Vice President Cheney had the better of the argument.

Judging forensics and rhetoric, it is clear that while President Obama came to make a speech, Vice President Cheney came to have a debate. The debater succeeded in making his points better than the speechmaker because while the President is justly celebrated for his vaunted eloquence, he phoned in his speech and thought that the use of pretty words alone would allow him to carry the day. Meanwhile, the Vice President--no one's idea of a charismatic rock star--was forced to make up for his lack of a silver tongue by tightly and carefully constructing reasoned arguments to support his position. It should come as no surprise that the Vice President was quite persuasive and a force to be reckoned with in the debate.

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While the President's speech was the longer one, this length did not make it more thorough - in fact, there are so many holes in his remarks it is difficult to keep track of them all. He maintains that his decision to use military commissions is not a reversal of an earlier position because it is supposedly improves on the Bush Administration approach to the use of military commissions. By this, he means that the Obama Administration will supposedly give detainees greater access to quality representation, and will reform the rules against hearsay. But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, under the Bush Administration, detainees already were the beneficiaries of pro bono legal representation from top-flight, white-shoe law firms.

Additionally, the hearsay rules were the same ones employed by the International Criminal Court, which liberals who support President Obama have repeatedly urged us to become subject to as a country. The President's protestations to the contrary, his decision to employ military commissions does constitute a reversal, one that belatedly acknowledges that the Bush Administration had some good ideas and good points to make about the use of such commissions.

The President tells us that decisions in the past were made out of "fear." This is a straw man argument, meant to denigrate the President's opponents without acknowledging that perhaps, just perhaps, they made their arguments in good faith. But even if we put that objection aside, as Commentary's John Podhoretz reminds us, fear was "the handmaiden of foresight" because it allowed us to think of the worst possible forms of terrorist attack that might take place, and to take action to prevent those scenarios from becoming reality. One can certainly overdose on fear, but the reason we feel fear is so that we can take action before actual harm comes to us. The President ignores this, and argues that fear necessarily equates to irrationality. He could not be more wrong.

Equally wrong is the belief--suggested by the President's words--that somehow, the United States only became unpopular because of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. This is not true; September 11th and the killing of Daniel Pearl--among other outrages--occurred prior to any information concerning enhanced interrogation being made public. Does the President propose that we ignore this history? We would do so at our peril.

In contrast to the President's vague generalities, the Vice President provided specific and detailed arguments explaining why the Bush Administration took the actions that it did. One is not forced to accept those arguments, and as I write, I find a number of them unpersuasive.

But at the very least, the Vice President tried to persuade, unlike the President, who simply thought that he could substitute rhetorical razzle-dazzle for argument. And the Vice President made an excellent point in his speech: Since the Obama Administration saw fit to release the interrogation memos, why does it not declassify and release memos detailing how successful those interrogations might have been? I am not sure they were successful, but I would like to have the full evidence before me in order to make a fully informed decision.

It seems as if the Obama Administration is incredibly capricious about the evidence it chooses to release, and the evidence it chooses to keep under wraps. This capriciousness is puzzling; by calling for the release of memos detailing how successful enhanced interrogation might have been, Vice President Cheney is, in effect, inviting the Obama Administration to call shenanigans on his arguments. If enhanced interrogation was unsuccessful, the Obama Administration can show it through those memos and prove to the public that Dick Cheney was wrong.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the Obama Administration is refusing to release those memos because Dick Cheney was right. If so, the Administration's refusal to take up the Cheney challenge, while self-righteously claiming that Dick Cheney is wrong, is dishonest in the extreme. And if that dishonesty translates itself into policy, it will be to the detriment of us all.

I realize that Dick Cheney is "Darth Vader," as far as the Obama Administration and its allies are concerned. But he is also an excellent debater who is able to bring well-placed facts overwhelmingly to bear in any argument. He did so against Joe Lieberman in the 2000 Vice Presidential debate. He repeated the performance in 2004, manhandling the silver-tongued John Edwards in the process. And despite the fact that I disagree with much that makes up his stance, I have to admit that he appears to have done so again. If President Obama--eloquent as he is--is unable to persuade those who are inclined to agree with him, he ought to reconsider his debating strategy.

Maybe he'll consider taking a lesson from Dick Cheney.

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

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