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Don't fear the truth

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Don't fear the truth

America needs a clear record, and a clean conscience, on how we’ve fought the war on terror. What to do? Cal and Bob agree on the need for a non-partisan ‘truth commission.’


Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot. They co-wrote the book


Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America.


Today:The politics of national security.

Cal: You have to hand it to former vice president Dick Cheney. The man should make his next career as an umpire, because he certainly calls 'em as he sees 'em. In his speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, he put the war on terrorism in the proper context, defending enhanced interrogation and advising that in fighting extremists, "half-measures keep you half-exposed."

Bob: I think the man's using half his brain the right half, naturally. But seriously, Cal, if you heard President Obama's speech on national security delivered just before Cheney's, you can see the clear distinctions between our past (Cheney) and our future (Obama). And from where I sit — and where I think you sit — Obama's approach to national security is about protecting the country while protecting what this country stands for. We don't have to choose our values or our security. That's a false choice. Cheney sees the world in black and white — like George W. Bush did — instead of the shades of gray that the rest of us see.

Cal: Where you and I will disagree is that there are black-and-white issues in this war — and yes, it's still a war — on terrorism. There is evil and good in the world. Right and wrong. Necessity vs. choice. Cheney talked about the "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" over the interrogation techniques, and he's right.

Bob: No, he's not. He's simply using his favorite play out of his administration's playbook: If your political opponent disagrees with you, shout them down rather than engaging their argument. I thought we left this in the rearview mirror back in November.

Cal: National security will never be in our rearview mirror, and that's what last week's duel was about, and what the whole Nancy Pelosi-CIA kerfuffle is about, too. This isn't just about politics as usual. We're in the middle of a war, and political gamesmanship could very well end up costing American lives. We need to get beyond this us vs. them world.

Bob: Well, Obama actually outlined — quite clearly — how we can move forward. And get this: He criticized those on the left and the right for the way this debate has gone awry: "On the one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism and would almost never put national security over transparency. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words — anything goes." He went on to point out that neither side is right, and that "the American people are not absolutist." That's common ground if I've ever heard it.

Cal: Let's see what he does in practice. I give him credit for his decision to withhold photos depicting the alleged abuse of detainees. That's a reversal of his position just one month ago and demonstrates the difference between running for president and being president. On the other hand, he's painted himself into a corner on the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

Bob: Believe me, he's taking flak from my friends on the left for his national security decisions. But Obama is a pragmatist, not an ideologue, when it comes to such issues. His speech last week simply affirmed that. I mean, within days of him taking office, the Predator drones resumed pounding terrorist targets along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Cal: Yes, that was a welcome sign, I'll admit.

Bob: And on the photos, he listened to reasonable arguments from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the generals in charge of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Then he did, yes, change his mind.

Cal: So where do we go from here? We still have the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose spat with the CIA has left her already-low credibility in shambles. Pelosi joined in the bipartisan and patriotic embrace following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On that very day, in fact, she said, "When we strike back, it will be fierce." But as the public began to tire of the war, Pelosi started to publicly oppose it. Now she accuses the CIA of lying to Congress about what they told her concerning "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Bob: This is well beyond "what Pelosi knew and when she knew it." Her briefing controversy is old news, but because Republicans have chosen to pursue the speaker, we almost certainly will get a complete investigation of the Bush/Cheney interrogation policies during the Iraq war and intelligence that got us into the war. This is just what President Obama said he wants to avoid. But since any investigation will be by act of Congress, it will be the Democrats who write the investigation's goals. Trust me, it will go well beyond Pelosi.

Cal: Old news? The Democrats wish that was so. The person second in the line of succession to become president said — just weeks ago, mind you — that the CIA repeatedly lies to Congress. Yet this is just partisan fishing expedition? Come on, Bob.

Bob: I'm just saying that Republicans should be careful what they wish for. They should take the out that Obama has given them on all of these issues.

Cal: I am saddened by the political one-upmanship that the Democrats, particularly, have played over terrorism.

Bob: Republicans, too, have played politics with terrorism. Remember that any opposition to Bush policies in the wake of 9/11 was beaten back with the club of patriotism. And bipartisanship should be expected when we are in conflicts abroad, but it cannot be demanded when U.S. actions are wrong or illegal.

Cal: You might have a point if there was moral equivalency between the U.S. and its enemies, but we are the "good guys."

Bob: We need to act like the good guys, then. That means living by the rule of law, rather than carving it to our liking. Look, if anything, Obama is showing that you can be strong and just at the same time.

Cal: Whatever the reasoning, wars should not be micromanaged by members of Congress for what appears to be political gain. Period. If this current bunch were around in World War II, they might have called for retreat and negotiations after Pearl Harbor and certainly after the disastrous (for the Allies) Battle of the Bulge. The objective of any war should be to win it and to use whatever means necessary to protect as many American lives as possible.

Bob: But I think you'd agree that "whatever means necessary" doesn't mean we have to descend to the level of our enemies. The only way we will now know what the extent of "enhanced interrogations" were, what they accomplished, and who knew what when is with a commission along the lines of The 9/11 Commission Report. The members of such a commission should be bipartisan, familiar with interrogation practices and have no personal interest in whose ox, if any, is gored. I wish it hadn't come to this, but without an independent commission, it is likely that this whole controversy will become more politicized and ultimately bog down the Obama administration. I'll be the first to say, the Democrats shouldn't use this as some grand inquisition of the Bush years. What say you?

Cal: I'm OK with this, provided that it doesn't devolve into a witch hunt and blame game. Politicizing policy decisions, especially after we have been attacked, is a dangerous strategy no matter which party is running the government. But you'd need to bring President Obama along. He has said he has no interest in such a commission. I suspect Congress will attempt its own investigation regardless if it has support from the president. But Congress has displayed some common sense by voting overwhelmingly not to shut Guantanamo Bay until the president tells them where these terrorists are going. I salute lawmakers for that, especially the Democrats.

Bob: Well, the commission issue isn't going away, as he continues to learn. He can keep saying "no" until Congress makes him say "yes." Call it political waterboarding!

Cal: I just hope that all Americans keep perspective here. Those were terrible days in the aftermath of 9/11, and people charged with protecting America had to make quick decisions based on what they believed was best for the country. That's what President Bush did, and I believe that history will vindicate his actions. Rules cannot be written that will fit all circumstances. The Bush-Cheney administration did the best it could. I'd rather have enhanced interrogations than a Miss Mannersapproach to these detainees if it means the difference between life and death for innocent people. With those qualifications and reservations, I'll endorse the idea of a "truth commission." And perhaps Speaker Pelosi, who has endorsed such a commission, could start by committing herself to speaking the truth.

Bob: If the truth shall set you free, then the freest country on the planet has nothing to lose by empanelling such a commission.

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