David Ignatius
Opinion writer September 10, 2011

It’s an interesting anomaly of Barack Obama’s presidency that this liberal Democrat, known before the 2008 election for his antiwar views, has been so comfortable running America’s secret wars.

Obama’s leadership style — and the continuity of his national security policies with those of his predecessor, George W. Bush — has left friends and foes scratching their heads. What has become of the “change we can believe in” style he showed as a candidate? The answer may be that he has disappeared into the secret world of the post-Sept. 11 presidency.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Obama has devoured intelligence from the day he took office: He stepped up the pace of Predator drone attacks over Pakistan starting in 2009. He approved the bold raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2. Before major speeches, such as the famous Cairo address in April 2009, he has even sought advice from intelligence analysts.

The president played the spymaster role last week, after a “credible threat” surfaced of an al-Qaeda car-bomb plot against New York and Washington. He tasked the intelligence agencies to pulse all their sources, and decided on a quick, broad release of the information to law enforcement agencies around the country, so they could join in the dragnet. Obama sent Vice President Biden out as front man on the Friday morning breakfast-television shows.

Obama is the commander in chief as covert operator. The flag-waving “mission accomplished” speeches of his predecessor aren’t Obama’s thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued. Watching Obama, the reticent, elusive man whose dual identity is chronicled in “Dreams From My Father,” you can’t help wondering if he has an affinity for the secret world. He is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so, in the way of an intelligence agent.

Intelligence is certainly an area where the president appears confident and bold. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who has been running spy agencies for more than 20 years, regards Obama as “a phenomenal user and understander of intelligence.” When Clapper briefs the president each morning, he brings along extra material to feed the president’s hunger for information.

This is a president, too, who prizes his authority to conduct covert action. Clapper’s predecessor, Adm. Dennis Blair, lost favor in part because he sought to interpose himself in the chain of covert action. That encroached on Obama, who aides say sees it as a unique partnership with the CIA.

Another sign of Obama’s penchant for the secret world was his decision to hire David Petraeus as CIA director. The president appears to be ratcheting up intelligence and paramilitary operations under the leadership of the nation’s most celebrated military commander, even as he withdraws uniformed troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bob Woodward, in “Obama’s Wars,” describes how the president-elect was told the nation’s most sensitive secrets on Nov. 6, 2008, two days after the election. “I’m inheriting a world that could blow up any minute in half a dozen ways,” he told an aide later. Obama immediately began to master the tools of counterterrorism.

The primacy of intelligence was clearest in the Abbottabad raid. Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times describe in their new book, “Counterstrike,” how Obama was presented on April 28 with three choices — the helicopter assault on the compound, a safer Predator attack or waiting for more intelligence to verify bin Laden’s presence. After deliberating for 16 hours, Obama chose the first, and riskiest, option.

Perhaps Obama’s comfort level with his intelligence role helps explain why he has done other parts of the job less well. He likes making decisions in private, where he has the undiluted authority of the commander in chief. He likes information, as raw and pertinent as possible, and he gets impatient listening to windy political debates. He likes action, especially when he doesn’t leave fingerprints.

What this president dislikes — and does poorly — is political bargaining. He’s as bad a dealmaker as, let’s say, George Smiley would be. If the rote political parts of his job sometimes seem uninteresting to him, maybe that’s because they seem trivial compared to the secret activities that he directs each morning. If only economic policy could be executed as coolly and cleanly as a Predator shot.

There is a seduction to the secret world, which for generations has charmed presidents and their advisers. It’s easier pulling the levers in the dark, playing the keys of what a CIA official once called the “mighty Wurlitzer” of covert action. Politics is a much messier process — out in the open, making deals with bullies and blowhards. But that’s the part of the job that Obama must learn to master if he wants another term.

On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, America is lucky to have a president who is adept at intelligence. But it needs, as well, a leader who can take the country out of the shadows and into the light.

davidignatius@washpost.com