By Jacob Sullum
In the wake of last week's attempted airplane bombing, former Vice President Dick Cheney is once again complaining that President Obama avoids using the word war in connection with Al Qaeda:
As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of Sept. 11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won’t be at war.
He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gets rid of the words, "war on terror," we won’t be at war. But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe.
This is stupid for several reasons. First, as I've noted before, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have repeatedly described the struggle against Al Qaeda as a "war," although they may not say the word as often as Cheney or Bush did. (Responding to Cheney, White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer cites "numerous...public statements that explicitly state we are at war" with Al Qaeda).
Second, the Obama administration uses martial rhetoric in the same way the Bush administration did, as an excuse for legal shortcuts. Despite Obama's symbolic (and broken) promise to close Guantanamo by January 22, it is far from clear that his policies regarding detention of terrorism suspects will be substantially different from his predecessor's.
But the stupidest thing about Cheney's comments is the notion that an insufficiently martial attitude explains the intelligence screwups that prevented the would-be underwear bomber from getting the scrutiny he should have—at the very least, a secondary screening that probably would have discovered the explosive device under his clothing. Does Cheney really imagine that if only Obama said war more often, the information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would have been properly shared and utilized? Does competence require a declaration of war?