Critics on the left and right who charge that President Obama equals President Bush on counter-terrorism issues are ignoring critical distinctions. (More)

Obama Bush

President Obama recently gave a major address regarding the U.S. national security and counter-terrorism efforts in which he set forth his thinking about where our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations should proceed from here. As we discussed last week, on perhaps the highest profile counter-terrorism issue – drone strikes – the president’s speech offered progress but disappointingly failed to set forth the transparency and oversight that the drone program needs.

But what President Obama did do in his speech was set forth a reframing of our efforts against terrorism in two critical ways. First, the president made clear that we should not view ourselves as engaged in an open-ended and wide ranging “war on terror,” because we can never overcome all terror, because an attempt to do so would be destructive to our democracy, and because it would be far more effective to target our efforts at specific threats. As he explained:

Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.
We must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror,” but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.
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 more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

Second, the president emphasized that our efforts against terrorism must involve far more than just military action. Instead, we also have to work to win the battle of ideas between democracy and totalitarianism, and help create conditions in other countries that will stifle, rather than foster, the ideologies that fuel terrorism. For example, President Obama said:

Nevertheless, this ideology persists, and in an age when ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism can’t depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.
I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy – because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.
Foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists. That has to be part of our strategy.

Such rhetoric represents a major development and welcome change. After more than a decade of most of our elected officials feeding us a steady diet of fear and militarism, it is significant that our Commander in Chief has stepped up to say that the “war on terror” must be limited and ultimately brought to an end.

Some critics, however, have suggested that President Obama’s speech was nothing more than talk and an effort to pretend that the President was using public acknowledgment of the difficult moral questions at stake as a cover for not really changing the underlying national security and counter-terrorism policies that progressives find so troublesome. Or, as Glenn Greenwald argued:

What Obama has specialized in from the beginning of his presidency is putting pretty packaging on ugly and discredited policies. The cosmopolitan, intellectualized flavor of his advocacy makes coastal elites and blue state progressives instinctively confident in the Goodness of whatever he’s selling, much as George W. Bush’s swaggering, evangelical cowboy routine did for red state conservatives.

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat offered a similar take in a column titled Obama’s Artful Anguish.

But this criticism misses two key points. First, rhetoric is important. While action is, of course, what matters in the end, action can only occur if political support can be built for a certain position through, among other things, verbal persuasion. So, for example, as some in Congress are working to build support for an effort to repeal the 2003 Authorization of Use of Military Force (“AUMF”), it was important that President Obama stepped up to say that he would not expand the AUMF and that it should ultimately be repealed. Certainly, such public positioning is far more beneficial than if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were still running around the country calling for more war.

Second, the critique of President Obama’s speech, and counter-terrorism policies in general, is based in the claim that Obama’s counter-terrorism policies are essentially the same as or worse than President Bush’s, or as Greenwald puts it, Obama is “some sort of warped progeny of Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney.” But this claim is utterly ridiculous.

There have certainly been some disappointments when it comes to the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism and national security policies. In addition to the need for more oversight and transparency regarding drone strikes, the continued militarization of police forces encouraged by the federal government is problematic, the signing of the NDAA that arguably authorizes indefinite detention for US citizen terrorism “suspects” is disturbing, and the failure to fully end renditions is beyond disappointing.

But on numerous important issues, the Obama administration plainly has not been a continuation of Bush-Cheney. The Obama administration ended torture as an official interrogation technique, has focused on trying terrorism suspects in our judicial system and resisted conservative calls to declare suspects such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be enemy combatants, and has sought to close Guantanamo but has been stopped by Congress. And the president has properly sought to shift the conversation away from war and towards diplomacy, and has refused to respond to terrorism with the kind of fear-mongering that the Bush Administration used to get us into the war in Iraq. And the Obama administration has ended our misadventure in Iraq, is ending the war in Afghanistan, and most importantly has correctly not gotten us involved in new military misadventures in Syria, Iran, etc. despite significant conservative and media pressure to do so.

So let’s please stop with the silly claim that Obama=Bush on these issues and instead focus on how we can heed the president’s call to move us away from the war footing that we have been on for the past nearly twelve years.