Grandpa Vigilant Vs. Kid Nuance

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It went down. Oh yeah, it did. Big time.

The president spoke for a long time in a big room. And then the former vice president spoke for a long time in a smaller room across town. We’ll be talking about it for hours, or at least until something else happens. The two men, Grandpa Cheney and Kid Obama, totally disagreed. But we already knew that. What the speeches showed was something different: How differently their minds work. It’s as if they were wired with different technology.

Barack the Kid spoke of complexity. Each of his points had several subparts. Even the subparts had subparts. He explained three major decisions he had made. Then he addressed two big topics–the future of Guantanamo detainees, which could be divided into five categories, and his approach to security and transparency, which itself had several subparts ranging from declassification to the use of the states secret privilege in court. Obama wanted to add nuance to the debate over these issues, he said, still acting like a professor at the white board. “I will explain how each action that we are taking will help build a framework that protects both the American people and the values that we hold dear,” he said.

Grandpa Vigilant had no time for frameworks with subpoints. In his mind the world was entirely binary: good/bad, effective/ineffective, successful/unsuccessful. The core of Cheney’s argument was this claim to a digitized world of 0’s and 1’s.

[W]e’re left to draw one of two conclusions, and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort.

This is a radical statement, worth reading a second time. It assumes, at its core, that the national security policies of George W. Bush, which the American people have largely judged a failure, are an all or nothing proposition. They cannot be improved, or criticized. They cannot be pieced apart into subgroups or frameworks. To put it simply, You are either with us or against us. Cheney has fashioned himself into the L. Ron Hubbard of foreign policy. To criticize is to reject. Skepticism is not a virtue, but an attack. [More after the jump.]

In this same binary mode, Cheney also called for “a truthful telling of history,” something he believes has not occurred over the past several weeks. For instance, he said that the Obama Administration has selectively released memos describing the CIA interrogation program. “For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers,” Cheney said. (In the spirit of truthfulness, I am obligated to point out that the 2005 memos Obama released did include extensive discussion of the information obtained through harsh interrogations. The White House is still processing–and has not objected to–the release of the memos Cheney wishes to discuss in public.)

He said that some have made a “strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib with the top-secret program of enhanced interrogations.” (Another truthfulness note: As bookshelves of investigations have concluded, the photos at Abu Ghraib captured a variety of things, including officially-approved interrogation practices–using stress positions, dogs, forced nudity, sleep deprivation–as well as the unsupervised abuses of night guards enjoying sadistic acts of humiliation. The one dead guy in the photos, for instance, had been killed in the custody of OGA, an acronym for classified government forces, most likely the CIA. The night guards had nothing to do with his death, which never led to any public reprimands of the officials involved.)

Cheney rejected at face value the “recruitment-tool theory,” which posits that information about harsh interrogation methods riles America’s enemies and increases the danger abroad. (Final truthfulness note: Cheney and the Bush Administration have long echoed military leaders in arguing that the release of photos, like the abuses at Abu Ghraib, could harm U.S. military interests by rousing anti-American sentiment abroad.)

But never mind the specifics of Cheney’s search for a “truthful telling of history.” What is important here is that Cheney declared, without any equivocation or nuance, that “in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground.” It was less an argument than a declaration. It was a vivid reminder of where he stands, and how he thinks. If nothing else, it is a perfect epitaph for philosophy, and an era of American history that has, at least for the moment, been thoroughly rejected by the sitting President of the United States.