Last Thursday’s face-off between President Barack Obama speaking at the National Archives and former Vice President Dick Cheney shortly thereafter at the American Enterprise Institute brilliantly exposed what is arguably the greatest threat to the nation. Yet, understandably, no one took notice.
After all, both Obama and Cheney were out to defend their records regarding the incendiary issues of the moment concerning Guantanamo and treatment of detainees including torture and enhanced interrogation techniques that have seized the public’s attention.
But for all the threats and dangers facing the nation, from economic and financial calamity to Jihadist extremists toppling friendly governments and coming into possession of nuclear or biological weapons, the most obvious is here at home, hidden in plain sight. It stems from the collective failure of our elected leaders, regardless of party, to govern adequately. Bluntly put, government is broken. Can anyone fix it?
Inadvertently and without explicit reference to this mega question, both Obama and Cheney provided polar opposite, competing visions as answers. The Bush-Cheney vision was based on the belief that in time of crisis or war, declared or not, the president possesses virtually unlimited powers in protecting the nation. With a nation at war, the constitutional system of checks and balances and congressional and judicial oversight of the executive could be superseded or greatly reduced as Lincoln and FDR had done in times of gravest crisis. Hence, the Bush administration needed neither the authority nor the approval of Congress in how it chose to deal with waging a war on terror and an enemy that was not afforded broad legal protection under the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions.
A further, unstated and critical adjunct to Cheney’s argument related to the role of ideology. In acting to protect the nation, Cheney and Bush believed that ideology and instinct can dominate decision-making. Hence, the beliefs a president brings to or develops once in office in this vision are the best measures for leading the country even if or because they flow from strong religious or theological convictions rather than an intellectual or more analytical framework. And that was how the Bush administration often decided on major courses of action.
The decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was predicated on the belief that the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East would be changed for the better. Weapons of mass destruction were secondary if not excuses and not the real rationale for war. Nor were the manufactured terror linkages between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And, similarly, safeguarding Americans trumped the law and notional U.S. values when it came to apprehending, interrogating and holding terrorist suspects. This combination of an all-powerful presidency and an ideologically driven agenda dominated the Bush-Cheney years. Of course, the former vice president made no explicit mention of this vision of governance as he did not admit to error or failure in how the Bush administration pursued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama offered the exact reverse vision for governance using the power of analysis and logic over ideology to make the case. The president called for a return to government based on three co-equal branches in which transparency and oversight of the executive were essential, restoring a measure of checks and balances. Unlike the Bush-Cheney administration where compartmentalization and unwillingness to share power or broaden decision-making prevailed — Secretary of State Colin Powell was never asked for his recommendation as to the Iraq war nor fully consulted on enhanced interrogation techniques — Obama promised a return to real division of power and real oversight. For a former professor of constitutional law, this was unsurprising. But, for a politician, will this vision of governance and the preference for analysis make the United States more secure?
This clash of visions may prove academic. The problems may be too great and too plentiful for any government to resolve. And simply because Obama appears more analytical, rational, pragmatic and open in his vision of governance, at least for the first four months, there are no guarantees that this view will survive or that his policies will prove more effective than his predecessor’s. Still, it is refreshing to hear a president make his case so well and in a manner in which he is determined to explain to individual Americans the full basis for his actions.
The larger question, however, lingers. Can a return to checks and balances and analytically driven decisions repair a government that is broken? Or, given the powerful and possibly irreversible centrifugal forces accelerated by partisanship, politics and ideology, will any approach to governance be thwarted? The answer will define success or failure not merely for the Obama administration but the nation at large.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was originally published as “Top National Security Threat” in Ullman’s Outside View column, part of UPI’s Emerging Threats analysis section.