Put American Lives First

Are we at war? There are two schools of thought. One believes that in addition to our men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are battling a dedicated Islamist terrorist enemy. The other believes that a feckless president (the last one) embarked on wars of choice, that we must extricate ourselves from them quickly, and that terrorist attacks on our country are rooted in historical policy errors and American arrogance.

While the exigencies of the presidency have pushed President Obama from his anti-war campaign rhetoric, he nonetheless persists in promoting the notion that he can conduct "contingency operations" from the Olympian heights of moral superiority.

This week, President Obama decided to line himself up against former vice president Dick Cheney, who had been invited to speak on counterterrorism at the American Enterprise Institute.

Obama spoke first Thursday (at the National Archives), outlining his decisions--closing the prison at Guantanamo, banning enhanced interrogations, releasing "torture memos." He said that Gitmo has "weakened American national security" by diminishing our "moral authority," and that prisoners released into the U.S. could be secured in maximum security prisons.

Why not declassify the results of enhanced interrogations?

The speech--long and defensive--lingered on the burdens of decision-making and the morality of our nation. But it presented few solutions: Where are those Gitmo prisoners going? Why were reports on detainee recidivism suppressed? Why do enemy combatants have constitutional rights?

In contrast, Cheney laid out a spirited defense of leadership in time of war, and within the constraints of the Constitution. Cheney said lives have been saved by enhanced interrogation. If not, he asked, why not declassify the results of those interrogations? Americans will not be protected by a decision to relabel "war" and "terrorism," or to relegate our nation's defense to the crime lab and the jury.

Mr. President, war is hell. Presidents and prime ministers have bombed Dresden, dropped nuclear weapons and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Ultimately, as Cheney made clear: "No moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things."

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

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