Since early in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama has argued that the United States must talk not only to its friends, but also to its enemies. Just this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported re-opening talks with the brutal regime in Iran. So if Obama is willing to talk to bad guys around the world, why not to Dick Cheney? It's time for the president to have a major "bilateral" with the former vice president—a "full and frank exchange of views" (diplomatic speak for a tongue-lashing) with his most significant domestic adversary.
It's easy to say that Cheney is not significant, that he's just an embittered private citizen with an approval rating well below freezing.
But Cheney is not a radio talk-show host or a blowhard congressman who can spout any nonsense without consequence. He served at the top of the American government for eight years and designed the war on terror he now champions. His words are carried all around the world.
And those words are now unquestionably harming the national security of the United States.
There's nothing wrong with Cheney “politicizing” terrorism. In a democracy, everything should be the subject of public debate. He is entitled to criticize Obama's decision to prosecute CIA interrogators for torture or to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in New York City.
It's the dishonest nature of Cheney's harsh attacks on Obama that threaten our safety. Can anyone think of another former president or vice president accusing a sitting president of not defending the country?
It's important to distinguish between in-bounds political rhetoric and out-of-bounds lying. Cheney unambiguously lied by saying Obama is "trying to pretend we are not at war," when in fact the president said explicitly in his Inaugural Address and on at least a dozen subsequent occasions that we are at war. Obama's only amendment to the war language has been to drop the "on terror" part. The president, who has sharply stepped up Predator drone attacks on jihadists from the Bush-Cheney years, knows you can't fight a war against a tactic.
Just imagine how Al Qaeda leaders view Cheney's slurs on Obama. Cheney is saying Obama is weak. Well, maybe he is, they think. Cheney says Obama won't defend the United States. Well, maybe he won't, they figure. Sounds like a good time to stage another attack. Yes, Dick Cheney is emboldening our enemies. The question is what should be done about it.
The administration figures it has already called him out. Vice President Biden said Cheney is “dead wrong” about Obama. John Brennan, the counterterrorism chief who served in Republican administrations, told David Gregory on Meet the Press last Sunday that he was "very disappointed" in Cheney. Senior adviser David Axelrod typed out a sharp response to Cheney, which White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer reworked and posted on the White House Web site.
Beyond that, the White House prefers to hold its fire. Cheney is useful to Obama politically. He is so unpopular that his presence in the story discredits his criticisms, even the valid ones. White House aides would rather have Cheney be the one to launch charges against Obama on terrorism than, say, largely unknown congressmen such as Peter King and Peter Hoekstra, whose critiques land more powerfully because their identities don't get in the way of the substance of what they're alleging.
But this assumes that the consequences of Cheney's comments extend no further than the Washington echo chamber, that it's a political story. In fact, it's a national security matter, and thus one that requires the direct involvement of the president. If Obama called Cheney in and told him to knock it off, would Cheney listen?
That depends on how big a hypocrite he is. Cheney has consistently argued on behalf of a "unity executive" theory of presidential power. This means, essentially, if the president says so, it must be legal. So if the president tells Cheney that his comments are harming our national security by emboldening our enemies, Cheney should, in theory, back down. If he doesn't, he'll look even worse, further discrediting what he says.
The person to bring the two men together is Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary in both administrations. He could join Obama in telling Cheney that he's out of line and that he is not helping the effort to fight a war he so cares about winning. Nowadays, reconciliation between enemy forces is easier in Kabul and Baghdad than in Washington. But it would be good for the president to try.