The No. 2 officials of the Obama administration and the preceding Bush administration on Sunday cited at least three disagreements concerning the terrorist threat and the appropriate US response: the value of the Iraq war, the nature of any future terrorist attacks on the US, and how to handle the accused Christmas Day bomber.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Dick Cheney exchanged tits for tats in a public tete-à-tete during an unusual string of separate appearances on Sunday news shows. Mr. Cheney has been a vocal critic of the Obama approach to what the Bush administration called "the global war on terror," and he made clear Sunday that, in his view, the war goes on.
The two No. 2s didn't part company on everything, but the points of departure came through loud and clear. Here are three key ones.
The Iraq war. Though polls show that a majority of Americans see the Iraq war as a mistake, Cheney reiterated his oft-stated position that the US invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein was "the right thing to do." During an appearance on ABC's "This Week," he said: "We got rid of one of the worst dictators of the 20th century. We took down his government, a man who'd produced and used weapons of mass destruction, a man who'd started two different wars, a man who had a relationship with terror," Cheney said.
Vice President Biden, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," praised the Obama administration's management of "the hand we were dealt" in Iraq. But he also said "I don't think the war was worth it." Biden cited "a horrible price, not only in loss of life, the way the war was mishandled from the outset, but we took our eye off the ball, putting us in a much different and more dangerous position in Afghanistan, [and] we lost support around the world." About 4,370 US service members have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003, and the government has spent close to $700 billion to pursue it.
Nature of any future terrorist attack. Cheney took issue with a Biden statement on Feb. 10 that "the idea of there being a massive attack in the United States like 9/11 is unlikely." Biden's explanation for this view: "What's happening, particularly with Al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula, they have decided to move in the direction of much more small-bore but devastatingly frightening attacks." He cited the Richard Reid "shoe bomber" case, the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner above Detroit, "or someone just strapping a backpack on them with explosives that are indigenous."
Cheney, though, sees a darker terrorist intent – and on "This Week" he again expressed his worry that the Obama administration does not have the right "mindset" to confront such a threat. "[T]o say that, you know, that was a big attack we had on 9/11, but it's not likely again, I just think that's dead wrong. I think the biggest strategic threat the United States faces today is the possibility of another 9/11 with a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind, and I think Al Qaeda is out there even as we meet trying to figure out how to do that."
The Christmas Day bombing suspect. The Obama administration has come under heavy criticism from Republicans – and even some moderate Democrats – for treating suspect Umar Abdulmutallab as a criminal to be prosecuted through the justice system rather than as an enemy combatant whose detention and interrogation would be subject to less strict rules.
It's no surprise, perhaps, that Cheney would have sought to deal with Mr. Addulmutallab differently. During the Bush administration, he revealed Sunday, he was on the side of those arguing for enemy combatant status for suspects whose cases ultimately proceeded in federal court.
"The proper way to ... deal with it would have been to treat him as an enemy combatant," Cheney asserted of Abdulmutallab. But his zinger was what came next: "The thing I learned from watching that process unfold, though, was that the [Obama] administration really wasn't equipped to deal with the aftermath of an attempted attack against the United States in the sense that they didn't know what to do with the guy."
He subsequently acknowledged that developing a process for handling such suspects is "hard" – and that the Bush administration itself struggled to find the balance that would satisfy the US Supreme Court and the Congress.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is pushing back forcefully in defense of its decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights soon after his arrest and to charge him in federal criminal court. Attorney General Eric Holder sent Congress a letter earlier this month to defend his decision, and on Saturday, it won backing for its approach from two key senators, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the intelligence committee, both Democrats.
Biden, too, addressed the issue, using the now-familar we're-doing-what-you-did defense.
"The Christmas Day bomber was treated the exact way that [Cheney] suggested that the shoe bomber was treated, absolutely the same way," Biden said on "Meet the Press." "There were 300 trials of so-called terrorists and those who had engaged in terror against the United States of America who are in federal prison and have not seen the light of day, prosecuted under the last administration."
For the Obama administration's purposes of political argument, it's convenient that Cheney's view on how to treat terrorist suspects arrested on US soil was not, by and large, the prevailing one.
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