The Law Professor Vs. The Defense Secretary

The famous French philosopher Blaise Pascal is best known for his “wager.” He said that while it may be impossible to rationally prove the presence of God, it was a bad wager to bet against him. His view was that while it may be a bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, eternity is a long time, and to bet against the presence of God gains you nothing, but betting with Him, no matter how improbable, can earn you eternal returns.

Dick Cheney has a corollary to Pascal’s wager. His view is that it is a bad bet to do anything less than everything you can to stop terrorists from attacking America. That includes using enhanced interrogation techniques, wiretapping, and keeping them housed at Gitmo.

President Obama seems to be taking the other side of Mr. Cheney’s bet. He believes that such tactics undermine American values and make us less safe. He believes in a more measured response, paying more deference to the courtrooms of America.

Where Dick Cheney is approaching this conflict as a Defense secretary, Mr. Obama is approaching it as a law professor. Cheney was unsparing and unrelenting in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute. You can tell that he was reaching the limits of his patience with this whole argument. He believes that he had only one overriding responsibility: prevent another 9/11.

Obama was much more theoretical, and much more professorial in his approach. He made grand statements, like when he said that Gitmo served as a great recruiting tool for al Qaeda. But it should be abundantly clear that the 9/11 terrorists didn’t need the inspiration of Gitmo to crash those planes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

Obama is also making an assumption about the values of the American people: that they somehow value freedom over security. That is not exactly true. Think of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, the Palmer raids, the internment of Japanese citizens, the COINTELPRO program, the Red Scare. None exactly upheld the best of American values, but all were done in the name of preserving American security.

Obama believes that he will win this debate with Cheney, because he thinks that he has the superior case to make. He also thinks that Cheney’s dismal popularity ratings make him a good antagonist in this national security play.

Cheney, though, is not backing down from this fight, and his spare but persuasive case should be troubling to the Obama team.

This is not a good debate for the president to have. Should terrorists strike again in America, Obama will get the blame. Most Americans will remember this debate, and they will remember Cheney’s words of warning.

The American people love to talk a good game about how they value freedom and the rule of law, but in times of crisis, they value their personal security even more.


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