I don’t think anyone knows quite what this administration’s anti-terrorism policy is. Last August, Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, lambasted the Bush administration, citing ”the inflammatory rhetoric, hyperbole and intellectual narrowness that has often characterized the debate over the president’s national security policies” and criticizing the conduct of counterterrorism during the eight years following 9/11.
But more than one-third of all terrorist plots since 9/11 transpired in 2009 — despite loud chest-thumping about rejecting the idea of a war on terror, reaching out to the Muslim world, and apologizing for purported American sins. A non-impoverished Major Hasan or Mr. Mutallab (or Mr. Atta or KSM) does not fit with the notion that our enemies act out of poverty or oppression or want.
In fact, what we are witnessing is a strange mishmash. On the one hand, after repeatedly trashing the Bush protocols in 2007–08, Obama has quietly adopted most of them — keeping the Patriot Act, intercepts, wiretaps, renditions, the concept of tribunals, Predator attacks, forward offensive strategies in Afghanistan, and the Bush-Petraeus timetable in Iraq.
But on the other hand, the Obama administration has embraced largely empty symbolism — promising to “close Guantanamo within a year,” mouthing euphemisms such as “overseas-contingency operations” (“this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’”), and “man-made disasters,” while announcing showy new politically-correct moves (such as a public trial for KSM) and subjecting CIA operatives to legal hazard.
In both the Major Hasan and Abdul Mutallab cases, the administration has shown initial confusion about the nature of the danger and security breach. The simultaneous announcement of both more troops and a withdrawal date from Afghanistan did not correct the image of confusion and hesitancy.
What to make of all this?
Apparently, the Obama administration came into office in January 2009 thinking that the notion of a “war on terror” was archaic and largely had been an excuse for the Bush-Cheney nexus to scare the nation for partisan political purposes. Given the long period of calm after 9/11, the somnolent “good” war in Afghanistan, and the sudden quiet in the “bad” Iraq theater, Obama preferred to focus on Bush’s constitution-shredding rather than on national security. What vestigial danger remained could be changed by the charisma of Barack Obama, the obvious appeal of his ancestry to the Muslim world, and the ritual demonization of George Bush.
But Obama has discovered that there really are radical Islamic threats; that Bush’s record of seven years of security was no accident; and that the “good” war is heating up. Obama has been forced by events to quietly find ways of emulating Bush’s successful anti-terrorism formula, while making loud but empty declarations to mollify his liberal base (which so far seems pacified that Guantanamo is “virtually” closed, and that KSM is “virtually” facing an ACLU dream trial).
Radical Islamists sense, fairly or not, that this administration is angrier at prior officials who kept us safe than it is at those who wish to destroy us for who we are. Given his adoption of the Bush protocols, Obama might show the same magnanimity toward his predecessor that he does toward the Muslim world.