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Commentary: On Gitmo, 2 show courage, 90 don't

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama and Cheney give strong speeches on Guantanamo
  • He says Cheney is presenting a powerful message in a consistent way
  • Navarrette says Obama deserves credit for spelling out what he will do on terror
  • He says Senate shamefully responded to not-in-my-backyard fears
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette says Obama and Cheney took principled stands on the issue of fighting terrorism.

Ruben Navarrette says Obama and Cheney took principled stands on the issue of fighting terrorism.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Thursday's competing addresses on national security from President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney put into sharp focus the contrast between those who think the military prison at Guantanamo Bay makes us safe and those convinced it makes us less so.

Which side are the American people on? Both actually. Polls show the public pretty evenly split on the question of whether Guantanamo is an asset or a liability.

That isn't likely to change as a result of the speeches. Both presentations were first-rate, comprehensive and -- to a point -- persuasive. More importantly, they showed courage -- something missing in Congress, where lawmakers are only making a tough situation even tougher by playing politics with national security because of shortsighted provincialism.

Obama believes: "Rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it."

Cheney sees it this way: "On his second day in office, President Obama announced that he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation and no plan. ... The administration has found that it's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security."

For my money, the duel was a draw. I don't expect either Democrats or Republicans to agree, given how polarized our politics are. Each side is more likely to cheer on the person they agree with, and refuse to acknowledge that the argument coming from the other direction has any merit at all.

At a time when the White House is zigzagging on anti-terror policies, Cheney -- whether you like him or not -- benefits from the fact that he is steady and consistent in delivering a provocative and powerful message: That the administration has, in seeking applause from some quarters and in trying to claim the moral high ground, made our country less safe with some of its decisions.

Still, Obama deserves a lot of credit for stepping up and spelling out what he is prepared to do to keep the nation safe -- and what he's not. And, at the same time, Cheney deserves credit for stepping up and offering an alternate view.

Frankly, both men showed more leadership than lawmakers in Congress, including many Democrats who broke with President Obama over closing Guantanamo because they fear the possibility of terror suspects being tried and incarcerated in their states. The administration has said that more than 100 prisoners would need to be moved to the United States, including many who are described as too dangerous to let go but who cannot be prosecuted for one reason or another.

Just this week, the Senate voted 90 to 6 in favor of a measure that would prevent the Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to the United States.

Senate Democratic leaders said they would not provide the $80 million that the administration requested to close the detention center at Guantanamo without seeing more specifics about what is going to happen to prisoners.

Senate Democrats are acting shamefully in pandering to NIMBY (not in my backyard) provincialism rather than trying to convince their constituents that 240 terror suspects, who can be held in maximum-security federal prisons, don't really constitute a threat to national security.

And some Democrats even have the nerve to want it both ways. They promise to help Obama close Guantanamo (when they think it will be politically popular) while condemning the transfer of terror suspects to the United States (when they fear that could be politically unpopular). One minute, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declares that "Guantanamo makes us less safe." The next minute, Reid vows that "we will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."

That's beautiful. Senator, do you know what really makes us less safe? It's a lack of leadership in matters where it is absolutely essential.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Barack ObamaDick CheneyGuantanamo Bay

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