Attacks Were Defining Moment for Obama
Many Decisions Now Rooted in Threat of That Day, but Critics Question Focus

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

In marking his first Sept. 11 anniversary as commander in chief, President Obama told a solemn audience at the Pentagon on Friday, including relatives of those who died there eight years ago, that "no passage of time and no dark skies can ever dull the meaning of this moment."

It was not hollow rhetoric. The attacks and the steps that the Bush administration took to prevent another one have defined the way Obama views the world and have influenced, more than any other event, his understanding of national security.

That assessment comes from senior Obama advisers, including Bush-era veterans, and from a review of his past remarks about the terrorist strikes and the way the country responded to them. But his critics on both the left and right say that Obama has either drawn the wrong lessons from Sept. 11 or allowed the event to distract from national security issues with potentially more lasting consequences, including climate change and the rising ambitions of regional powers.

"The politics of the post-9/11 world require Obama to say he is defined by it," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "Certainly, many of the things he has inherited, the things he has to deal with, are the result of 9/11, and he approaches the conflict in a profoundly different way than the last administration. But it must still be seen as central to what he spends his political capital on."

Obama has written and spoken about Sept. 11, 2001, many times, and since taking office, he has recalibrated U.S. war efforts abroad, detention and interrogation policies at home, and even the language his administration uses to speak about terrorism, based on his interpretation of that morning and its aftermath.

His decisions to prohibit torture in interrogation, close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and speak directly to the Muslim world from an Arab capital have all been informed by the conclusions he has drawn about how and why the 9/11 attacks were carried out. His push for a stronger nonproliferation regimen, for example, is rooted in his analysis of the threat revealed on that day.

At the same time, Obama has preserved controversial elements of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies, including the authority to kidnap and transport terrorism suspects to third countries and hold others indefinitely in U.S. detention centers, although with some important modifications.

Those measures have concerned some human rights activists who anticipated from Obama's campaign promises and early opposition to the Iraq war an administration that would break sharply from the Bush approach. But his senior advisers say Obama's policies are consistent with a largely non-ideological view of the post-9/11 world that is more practical than critics on the right, led by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, have suggested.

"The way the country experienced that time has fundamentally shaped the way he sees the world," said John O. Brennan, Obama's senior adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism. "If you come at this ideologically, you are going to miss important ways to confront terrorism."

'New World of Threats'

When American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, was driving to a legislative hearing in downtown Chicago.

"By the time I got to my meeting, the second plane had hit and we were told to evacuate," Obama said in an August 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "What we saw that morning forced us to recognize that in a new world of threats, we are no longer protected by our own power."

That speech, his first major national security address as a presidential candidate, opened with the 9/11 attacks, a choice that revealed the extent of their influence on his thinking, senior advisers said.

It was the first major address that Ben Rhodes, now Obama's senior national security speechwriter, worked on with the Illinois senator, who had opposed the Iraq war and favored an expansion of the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Obama had been interested before Sept. 11, Rhodes learned, in the way free trade, immigration, technology, terrorism and other elements of globalization were changing the world. He said Obama saw the attacks as "a broader shift," one that clarified al-Qaeda's place as the most urgent national security threat.

"It is a shift connected to the proliferation of technologies. It's connected to failing states. It's connected to the fact that the challenges that confront us are global in nature," Rhodes said. "He believed that 9/11 signaled the beginning of that era and that we, essentially, needed to catch up to it."

Two months after his inauguration, Obama spelled out his rationale for deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He mentioned 9/11 five times in his remarks.

Rhodes, who helped write the speech, said the attacks "played a huge role" in Obama's policy change in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the administration thinks much of the al-Qaeda leadership remains.

The core of the resistance he is facing on his Afghanistan policy comes from within his own party, and polls show that American support for the war is falling as the U.S. casualty count climbs.

Gary J. Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the attacks appear to have made the first Democratic president since 9/11 more hawkish than the last one. He cited the use of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan as "not something you'd expect from a Democratic president."

President Bill Clinton "had plenty of opportunities to pull the trigger and didn't. Obama's pulling the trigger quite often," Schmitt said.

'Common Purpose'

The criticism lies at the heart of the conservative response to Obama's orders to close Guantanamo Bay, end harsh interrogation techniques, and leave the decision to investigate those practices to Attorney General Eric H .Holder Jr.

As Cheney said in a May 21 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, "You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event."

Minutes before Cheney spoke, Obama had concluded his own address at the National Archives, in which he said that "after 9/11 . . . enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the law."

"Faced with an uncertain threat," he said, "our government made a series of hasty decisions."

On previous Sept. 11 anniversaries, Obama has recalled the unity that followed the attacks as a national virtue worth regaining. He did so last year alongside Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his Republican rival for the presidency, and returned to it again Friday.

"Most of all, on a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose," Obama said at the Pentagon. "Let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans."

Eight years ago, Brennan was at a morning staff meeting at CIA headquarters when an aide knocked on the door. He was the agency's deputy executive director, and the news that a plane had hit a World Trade Center tower began what he called "a life-changing event for those of us who lived through it."

Brennan said Obama thinks and worries about another attack every day, and does not want Americans to forget that the nature of al-Qaeda has not changed simply because the U.S. president has.

"One of the concerns I have is that September 11 was eight years ago and there is a fear of complacency," Brennan said. "We cannot let down our guard."

Research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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