WASHINGTON -- If the question really is who is "making us SAFER" -- Dick Cheney and his hard line on terror or Barack Obama with his new approach -- then let me suggest that first we look at recent long-term developments in America's positioning in the world.
Let us move momentarily beyond the curious but revealing Obama/Cheney "world championship fight," featured last week on TVs all over the world with an indeterminate winner, and ponder some developments that are terribly real.
-- For the second time this year, a leading American official on a trip to China declined in advance to publicly discuss Beijing's human rights record. That official was none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but she was not alone in her surprising, sudden reticence. Only in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first voyage to Beijing as our top diplomat, did the same thing. It hardly escaped notice in the Chinese capital that both women had been outspoken on the subject before -- when, not by chance, the U.S. was less indebted to China.
-- American indebtedness to the Imperial Kingdom has now grown so huge that it raises new questions about when the Chinese, floating on a happy sea of American Treasury bonds, will decide we're a "bum risk" (an old Chicago term) and refuse to buy any more of our debt.
Pondering that particular reality, my thoughts went back to the day five years ago when I queried a leading Cheney aide about what the vice president really thought about the debt. "That it's all on paper," he quickly replied.
-- Even as we begin leaving Iraq on June 30, those old enemies seem to be arising once again, with a rash of attacks this spring, stirring memories of the sectarian bloodletting of the earlier war. Is the "next Iraqi war" already on our doorstep? Very likely.
But now, Pakistan is also increasingly in shambles. The Taliban, a name used now for an entire class of insurgent groups that have nothing in common except being virulently anti-American, is resurgent there. And as long as there are American troops all over the place, their presence will create new hatreds and new insurgents.
As we saw acted out in the "virtual debate" this last week, much of this is coalescing in an argument over "Gitmo." We are being led to believe that our major problem is the American base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba, where terror suspects are still held.
But is it? That is the question.
The president, speaking first at the National Archives, put his position clearly when he said that, after 9/11, "We went off course."
"I ... believe that all too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight," he said, "and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries we could no longer afford."
Meanwhile, across town at the conservative American Enterprise Institute only moments afterward, Cheney gave the pro-torture side as "making us safer."
"9/11 made necessary a shift of policy," he said, "aimed at a clear strategic threat. Wars cannot be won on the defensive. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event -- coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort."
But focusing all the Bush/Cheney years on Gitmo is a big mistake. We need to pause and ask: What else did the Bush/Cheney regime, with its "enhanced interrogation" policies and the consequent American indebtedness to finance these wars, lead to on the bigger scale?
Well, it led to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton going to Beijing and not daring to broach human rights. (Oh, they will say it was something else, but the real reason was that people know when they are dependent upon others. We owe them and they know it, and we know it, too.)
Bush/Cheney policy led to two wars: one that may be beginning to end, in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan and now Pakistan, that may well only be beginning. It led to a breaking down of exactly those international norms, institutions and rules of warfare that America over the decades has been the leader in instigating, primarily for our own protection. It led to many further impassioned reasons for young Muslims from Pakistan to Iraq to Indonesia to go out and fight Americans. It led to new hatred of America in the world as a financially profligate and morally irresponsible nation that has traveled far, far from its origins, which of course is where our real safety lies.
Dick Cheney, at least temporarily out of office, might be "freer," as he said in the speech, but we, as a great people are still shackled -- by wars, by economic breakdown and by an eating away of our principles.
This is safer? On the greater scale of human conduct, it is really far, far more dangerous. And this is what the Cheney/Bush administration (sic) has bequeathed us.