New York: In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration made clear to the world that it had the Islamic Republic of Iran in its sights.
Condoleezza Rice, who was then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, issued this warning in January 2002: “Iran’s direct support of regional and global terrorism and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction belie any good intentions it displayed in the days after the world’s worst terrorist attacks in history.”
So it was with shock (and with something like the opposite of awe) that, seven years later, the newly elected Barack Obama learned that the Bush administration had never even drawn up plans for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Obama discovered this when he asked his generals for their plan, and they had none. Bush had never asked for one. The bellicose rhetoric on Iran, in other words, was empty of substance.
A senior administration official told me that Obama soon ordered Robert Gates, the holdover secretary of defense, to draw up preparations. Not because Obama wanted to attack, but because it seemed absurd and irresponsible that his predecessor had labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” without even having a plan to confront such evil, and because Obama, despite allegations to the contrary, takes the threat of a nuclear Iran seriously.
Inside the White House, the no-Iran-plan fiasco is used to illustrate a larger point: Obama, on taking office, inherited 10 kinds of mess from Bush on national security. The administration is cautious about publicly blaming Bush for these messes, because it suspects — correctly — that the public isn’t interested in excuses about problems created or exacerbated by a president who left office more than four years ago.
Yet the landmark speech Obama gave last week at the National Defense University is best read as an indirect repudiation of Bush-era policies and rhetoric, and as an elliptical denunciation of Bush’s understanding of the fight against Islamist extremism.
Civil libertarians were mainly unmoved by the speech, in which Obama said he would continue using drone strikes against terrorism suspects while promising, again, to find a way to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake captured the cynical view with this formula: “Obama talks like a comparative religion professor and acts like a Blackwater executive.”
It’s true that the behavior of Obama’s leak-obsessed, secrecy-loving administration calls into question his stated commitment to civil liberties. But remember that Obama made a revolutionary change when he took office by banning torture. He has hinted at moves in several other areas that, if carried out, could equal that decision in drama and impact. He has reasserted civilian control over a military that at times had seemed to operate like a semi-independent entity, and he has resisted national-security officials’ request to kill terrorist targets without direct presidential supervision.
It’s also true that the president has failed to close Guantanamo. But Guantanamo exemplifies, to Obama, the recklessness of the previous administration: a decision to lock up suspected terrorists indefinitely in a prison on an already controversial military base outside American legal jurisdiction, with little thought given to the long-term consequences. That decision wasn’t accompanied by much forethought both because the Bush administration was scornful of planning — the occupation of Iraq stands out as one example — and because Bush thought the U.S. was engaged in an endless war.
In a way, Obama is leading from behind on Guantanamo. Americans, he feels, are more mature and less anxious about terrorism than they were at the outset of his presidency. He was heartened by the reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings, not only because the people of Massachusetts responded so resiliently but because there was so little pressure placed on him to have the surviving suspect tried by a military tribunal.
That response may account for this statement in his speech: “In the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers.”
This could be read as a commentary about the fight against al-Qaida, but also about the importance of resisting the temptations of interventionism. Obama, unlike his predecessor, seems to have promised himself not to be goaded into an unnecessary war. He is planning for war in Syria, of course, but he’s distinctly unenthusiastic about it.
Obama is particularly unimpressed by the argument that his unwillingness to confront Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, on the matter of chemical weapons will be interpreted by Iran as a sign of weakness. Obama thinks it’s a bad idea to go to war against one country to prove to a second country that you are capable of going to war.
There are good reasons to be concerned that Obama, in his desire to reverse some of the excesses of the War on Terrorism, will move too radically in the opposite direction. I’m always taken up short when he announces, as he often does, that the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end. It isn’t — what is ending is the American role in that war. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the U.S. military one day finds itself battling the next-generation Taliban, perhaps because Obama withdrew troops prematurely.
But Obama seems to recognize that the fight against terrorism will always have a military component, whether or not we continue labeling it a war. He says he’ll target only those who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to the U.S., but he has an appropriately expansive definition of “imminent.” And he will, to the chagrin of his critics, continue using drones not only in Afghanistan — where he deploys drones in the same way the military deploys artillery and mortars — but in other countries where he sees a threat.
What Obama seems to want most is to recalibrate the way we think about the challenge posed by Islamist extremism. The Bush administration framed the threat in apocalyptic terms; Obama thinks it’s containable. After the mainly miserable experience in Iraq, I’d rather have a president who is hesitant to make war but is prepared to do so than one who plans for nothing even as he promises eternal war.
Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. He can be emailed at email@example.com.