President Obama Says We Should Wash Our Hands

As if he didn’t have enough on his presidential platter of vexing and confounding long-term concerns — dangerous wars, failing economy, jeopardized environment, appointments to the Supreme Court and more — our president urged Americans to be careful about swine flu. He told us to wash our hands. This exceptionally intelligent and active president doesn’t miss a thing.

What he cannot entirely wash his hands of is the continuing fallout of Sept. 11 and the Bush administration’s policies for the fight against terrorists. The president’s speech yesterday, in sharp contrast to that of former Vice President Dick Cheney, demonstrates President Obama’s wisdom and courage. His was the more difficult case to make; Cheney’s was provocative and cheap, evincing the pseudo-bravery of the draft-dodger he was and the posturing tough guy he is.

The former vice president’s suggestion that any terrorist events that might occur in the ensuing years will be the result of President Obama’s “weak” policies is shallow and wrong. One could argue that President Clinton or President Reagan deserves credit because no Sept. 11-like attacks occurred on their watch. It is proving a negative. The connection is invalid then, and now. Random acts of terrorism occur, and democratic countries are especially vulnerable because we do not act like totalitarian police states.

Evolving a nuanced, rather than an ideological, set of national security positions subjects the president to criticism from the left and the right. The left is critical of his refusal to release photos of embarrassing behavior by our inquisitors, or to reverse the government’s historic position of the state-secrets defense in appropriate situations. The right wants the president not to look back at prior government misconduct, and to continue tough detention and interrogation practices. The president is walking a dangerous tightrope, veering to the left and to the right as he deems it necessary to strike a safe balance, and he is not wedded to any single invariable ideological theme. That makes good practical sense, but it leaves him vulnerable to the plaints of absolutist ideologues like Mr. Cheney that may appeal to a naïve general public, as well as the criticism of liberals who bristle at any departure from their party line.

President Obama was his most patriotic and instructive when he said:

I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values ... Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset.”

President Obama’s argument is the hard one to make, politically; Cheney’s was the easiest, but it is mistaken. We’ve regretted moments in our country’s history when we ignored our ideals — the domestic internments of World War II, for example. It is not weakness to be high-minded when times are tough; it is then that the strength of the American character is demanded, and most treasured.

The president was our mother-in-chief when he told us to wash our hands. He is father-in-chief when he teaches us:

The American people ... know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense.



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