Facing critics on both the left and the right, President Obama is trying to chart a middle course to quiet a rising tempest over his approach to terrorism.
In a major speech on Thursday delivered steps away from the US Constitution in the National Archives, Mr. Obama sought to regain the initiative on the issue by reaching out to middle America while asking his critics to push politics aside and embrace a spirit of pragmatism.
But instead of monopolizing the message, Obama ended up sharing the moment with one of his harshest critics, former vice president Dick Cheney, who was set to speak at the same time. The two speeches created the impression of a debate, providing a dramatic moment in a city that yearns for drama and confrontation.
In his speech, Obama said, “We are an imperfect people. Every now and then, there are those who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. We hear such voices today.”
Instead, Obama urged the nation to unite behind a new direction, away from the Bush administration’s policies. “We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America,” he said.
The speech comes at an important moment for Obama. Within days of taking office in January, the new president dazzled his liberal supporters with executive orders ending harsh interrogations and secret CIA prisons, and a pledge to close the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.
But four months later, his administration has backtracked in a number of key areas, among them reinstituting military commissions and calling for the creation of a system of preventative detention without charge. Human rights groups and other liberal supporters have been increasingly alarmed by these moves.
At the same time, conservatives question Obama’s strategy and rail against calls to investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials involved in harsh interrogations.
Sensing political peril, members of Congress pushed back against Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo. On Wednesday, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted 90 to 6 to withhold the $80 million the president requested to help transfer detainees to US-based courts and prisons. Lawmakers said they were concerned that their home states might become a target for future terror attacks.
Thursday’s speech was thus an attempt to reenergize White House counter-terror policies. But the timing of the speech was unusual. It was planned to take place at the same time as a scheduled speech by Mr. Cheney, who has become not only a vocal defender of Bush administration anti-terror tactics but a biting critic of Obama’s policies.
In a last-minute twist, Cheney waited until after Obama’s speech to begin delivering his own remarks, using his speech not just to answer the president and other critics, but to strike back at those urging that Bush administration officials be investigated.
“In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists,” he said.
Cheney said the enhanced interrogation methods used in the Bush administration’s war on terror were legal and helped save American lives. “No moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things,” he said.
In his speech, Obama criticized the Bush administration for making a “series of hasty decisions” in counter-terrorism issues. “Too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions,” he said.
“We went off course,” the president added.
In his comments, Cheney noted that there had been no further terror attacks in the US since 9/11. “On our watch they never hit this country again,” he said.
Obama acknowledged the flak from both left and right. “It is no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight and good copy,” Obama said. The end result is divisiveness, he said.
“On one side are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism,” he said. “On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that… the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means.”
Both sides are sincere in their views, the president said, but neither is right. “The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose rigid ideology on our problems,” he said. “They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security.”
Cheney offered a different view on the notion of a middle ground.
“The [Obama] administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the [liberal-conservative] spectrum,” he said. “But in the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground. And half measures keep you half exposed.”