Obama a prisoner of Bush’s ‘war on terror’

Prisoner of Bush’s ‘war on terror’

Two years into his presidency and nine years after 9/11, Barack Obama has yet to articulate a coherent message on terrorism

A firefighter at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York on  September 11 2001 A firefighter at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. Photograph: Graham Morrison/APDuring his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama made a number of impassioned calls for the United States to move beyond the psychological scars inflicted by the 11 September attacks and to adopt a more mature and realistic approach to dealing with the threat posed by al-Qaida. Calling on Americans to reject the “colour-coded politics of fear”, he pledged to close Guantánamo Bay, to forbid the use of torture in interrogations, and to rely on the courts – both civilian and military – to try terrorist suspects. As a candidate, Obama made it clear that he believed it was time to move America’s response to terrorism out of the shadows and to engage in a genuine dialogue with the Muslim world.

It is hard to reconcile the sweeping ambition of candidate Obama with the cautious baby-steps taken by the man who holds that office today. Almost two years after taking office, President Obama has officially ended the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects; but on most other counts, he has come up empty-handed.

Guantánamo Bay is not closed; the US is no closer to developing a consistent policy on trying terrorist suspects in a court of law; and the dialogue with the Muslim world has sputtered out after his Cairo speech. Worse still, President Obama has preserved some of the most misguided aspects of the Bush administration’s approach to al-Qaida while defending the culture of secrecy that permitted its worse abuses – like torture and extraordinary rendition – to flourish.

Only days ago, the Obama administration defended in court the right of the CIA to conduct extraordinary renditions on terrorist suspects, which permits American officials to kidnap foreign citizens and secretly transfer them to third countries for interrogation. It has promised to insist on “diplomatic assurances” from its partners that torture will not be used, but these are, at best, unenforceable, and at worst, disingenuous. Those alleging mistreatment, the Obama administration has now argued, cannot be allowed to sue in civilian courts for fear of endangering national security.

Also against its campaign promises, the Obama administration has sought to block efforts to restore the rights of habeas corpus to detained suspects in foreign countries, thus entitling the US government to hold these suspects indefinitely in foreign jails or black sites without due process rights. This is in direct contravention to a supreme court ruling in 2008, which restored habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay. Rather than seizing the opportunity to push for new and creative legislation and policies to deal with the legal black holes created by his predecessor, President Obama has quietly continued these policies – all the while brushing off calls for accountability for Bush administration officials who initiated these misguided practices.

More worryingly, President Obama has in some respects proven more willing to use force against terrorist suspects than President Bush. He has increased the number of CIA-run drone strikes in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region. These strikes, while effective in targeting militants, have killed an unknown number of civilians. They have been waged in the shadows, without public acknowledgment and without clear lines of authority or control inside government. By expanding the number and geographic reach of these strikes – first deeper into Pakistan, then onto Yemen – the Obama administration may be inadvertently stirring hornet’s nests that will generate even more terrorist attacks on the United States.

We simply do not know what the potential blowback risks of expanding drone attacks worldwide are. Nor is it clear that the Obama administration has paused to take a measure of that risk. Such a policy may be effective in degrading the leadership structure of al-Qaida’s cells, but it may also make the United States a whole host of new enemies whose capacity for harm is scarcely understood.

It is curious that this president – so eager to condemn President Bush for similar decisions on the campaign trail – has not offered a public defence or explanation for these policies. In contrast to his predecessor, who used the bully pulpit to make the case for a generational war against al-Qaida, President Obama has left it to his subordinates to make unremarkable speeches on counterterrorism, and to his lawyers to offer strong defences for Bush-era policies behind closed courtroom doors. When confronted with failed attacks on US soil, he has appeared slow and off his game – reluctant to engage in the militant posturing that characterised the Bush approach, yet equally reluctant to engage the public in a mature discussion about the nature of the threat and the proper response to it.

His lack of public engagement with the problem of terrorism has effectively ceded the rhetorical ground on the issue of counterterrorism to the Republicans. While President Bush left no doubt that he saw terrorism as a “war” problem, we still do not know what President Obama thinks the struggle against al-Qaida is or should be. His administration quietly discontinued the use of the phrase “war on terror”, but never told the American public why it did so, or how they should now think of the threat if it is no longer a war. This has left the administration vulnerable to the obvious Republican bait that they do not know they are at war with and that they are afraid to call their enemy by its name.

But perhaps more seriously, it has also left much of President Bush’s framing of the problem virtually intact. Because of this neglect, the American public still conceives of terrorism in the terms set by George W Bush; in his two years in office, President Obama has squandered the opportunity to redefine the problem of terrorism in a way that makes a clear break from the conceptual approach of his predecessor.

It is hard to understand why this president – so eloquent and so capable of seizing teachable moments for other issues – has remained so muted on terrorism. His absence is especially notable now that, in many respects, public debate is moving backwards. The administration dithered as protests over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York became a platform for resentment against Muslims in the United States by a small but vocal group of rabid nationalists. Only after the issue had dominated television news for days, did President Obama produce a carefully hedged statement, saying that the builders had the right to build it, but he would not comment on the wisdom of doing so.

This controversy was followed up by the detestable plans by a religious extremist in Florida to burn copies of the Qur’an, which, after days of controversy, merited finally a call from Obama that he hopes the pastor “prays on it and refrains from doing it”. At two crucial moments where the president could have been a forceful voice for tolerance, he entered into the public debate reluctantly and with statements more equivocal than the situation demanded.

This gap between candidate Obama and President Obama is striking. As I have argued before, he has made some important steps towards acknowledging the limits of America’s influence abroad. But he has not managed to make a decisive break from the Bush approach to managing terrorism.

He has succeeded in changing the atmospherics of America’s counterterrorism policy; gone is the rampant fear-mongering of the Bush administration and the full-throated calls for a war on the forces of “radical Islam”. But what has emerged in its place is neither a coherent policy nor a new conceptual approach for the problem of terrorism. The president has yet to deliver a vision for addressing terrorism that moves beyond the trauma of that fateful day in September nine years ago.

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