On Sept. 11, Obama struggles to balance messages of war, tolerance

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 3:30 AM

As President Obama attempts to lead the United States beyond the deep trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he has found himself confronting rising anti-Islamic sentiment at odds with his message of religious tolerance.

It is a contradiction and a challenge, both cultural and political, for a president who has concluded U.S. combat operations in Iraq, set a deadline for U.S. forces to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan and urged audiences to see Islam as a religion of peace.

Obama will mark his second 9/11 commemoration as president Saturday by laying a wreath at the site of the Pentagon attack. His message has been conciliatory.

"I think that at a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, then fears can surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society," Obama said Friday at a White House news conference. "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other."

Working against those efforts is Obama's political need to keep reminding the nation of al-Qaeda's assault in order to justify his escalation of the Afghan war, which only a minority of Americans believe is worth fighting. As a Democrat who never served in uniform and spent some childhood years in a Muslim-majority nation, Obama also is hindered in speaking about Sept. 11 by his own biography, raising suspicions among an increasingly anti-Islamic public whenever he tries to promote tolerance.

"He starts from a different place than the vast majority of Americans in that his introduction to Islam was not 9/11 but in Indonesia as a child," said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that "there's an unusual amount of incoherence in the country running up to this anniversary."

"One of the things that has distressed the president is that he has an intellectual understanding of these issues that is now coming up against an unfolding political reality," Alterman said. "And this is a president who, while good at politics, seems most comfortable in the world of policy."

The Sept. 11 attacks helped define Obama's approach to national security before he began his run for the presidency.

As a candidate, he used the attacks to underscore his opposition to the Iraq war, arguing that President George W. Bush had squandered U.S. military resources and credibility at a time when they were most needed against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As president he has nearly tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, citing the enduring terrorist threat against the United States he says is rooted deepest in that region.

Obama has also worked, with varying degrees of success, to end what he has criticized as damaging post-9/11 national security policies, sharpening a partisan debate over whether interrogation methods such as waterboarding and indefinite detention of terrorist suspects strengthen or harm the United States' ability to fight al-Qaeda. He prohibited torture in interrogation, and in speeches from Cairo University to the East Room of the White House he has called on Americans to celebrate Islam as a peaceful religion whose followers have contributed greatly to U.S. society.

"We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11," Obama said at the dinner he hosted at the White House last month to break the daily fast during Ramadan. "And let us always remember who we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al-Qaeda's cause is not Islam."

At that dinner, Obama endorsed the right of an imam and his associates to build a 13-story Islamic center two blocks from the site of the attacks in Lower Manhattan. "Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," he said, before stating that "this is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

The next day Obama made clear that, while endorsing the right of the center's organizers to build, he was not taking a position on whether they should actually do so. Some Republicans ridiculed him for essentially stating the obvious without taking a stand on the issue's most contentious element - a middle ground he maintained Friday when asked about the controversy during the news conference.

Bush, beginning in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, also drew a clear distinction between al-Qaeda's extremism and the way Islam is practiced by the vast majority of its 1.5 billion followers.

Obama has linked that message even more directly to U.S. foreign policy, making the repair of the post-9/11 breach in U.S. relations with the Muslim world a national security priority.

On Friday, he said the plans of a Florida pastor to burn the Koran on the 9/11 anniversary is "a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, who are sacrificing for us to keep us safe. And you don't play games with that."

Terry Jones, the pastor, has canceled plans to hold the event.

Public opinion is moving against Islam, a trend some Republicans have tapped into during the debate over the Islamic center. A senior administration official, who declined to be named in order to speak candidly on a sensitive subject, said, "What's most distressing is when you see it picked up by mainstream political figures," referring to the stand toward American Muslims taken by prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who have argued against the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.

"That poses a bigger challenge than whenever a pastor in Florida engages in some inflammatory action," the official said.

Nearly half of the respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted this month said they had an "unfavorable" opinion of Islam - the largest percentage since the poll began asking the question a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"In any large piece of the American story, it's going to take time to work through," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who has helped draft the president's most important speeches on Islam as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.

Rhodes said the pain of 9/11 is still challenging the U.S. commitment to pluralism - a phenomenon that is seen, in its most extreme, in the case of the Koran-burning controversy.

"We have to get to a point where these are not mutually exclusive," Rhodes said. "In fact, they are self-reinforcing."

A growing number of Americans also view Obama's message of tolerance toward Islam as self-serving, reflecting public doubts about his background.

A Pew Research Center poll released last month showed that nearly one in five Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, a higher number than when he took office. Obama said Friday that he "relies heavily on my Christian faith," adding that "I understand the passions that religious faith can raise."

"And I will do everything that I can as long as I'm president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God, and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation," he said.

But Obama is also relying on the "extraordinary sensitivities around 9/11," as he put it Friday, to justify his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the tactics he is using to fight al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Support for the war, especially among Democrats and the independents who supported him in 2008, has fallen sharply.

Obama has increased the use of unmanned drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, a legacy of the Bush administration that some civil-liberties and human-rights groups have challenged on moral and legal grounds.

This year alone, Obama has authorized six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan - 57 in all - than the Bush administration carried out from 2004 through 2007. Administration officials call the tactic a "scalpel approach" that requires a far smaller financial and human investment in war.

Obama talked about the need to bring U.S. foreign policy in line with its values, and soon after taking office he ordered the end of some interrogation tactics endorsed by the previous administration. But he has not closed the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as he pledged to do just days into his administration, and he has yet to decide how 9/11 suspects will be tried for their alleged crimes.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the post-9/11 national security debate is "not about whether the United States should aggressively pursue al-Qaeda."

"It is about whether our values and our laws made us weaker in the face of that enemy or stronger, whether the law impedes bringing terrorists to justice, as [former vice president] Dick Cheney and others have argued, or whether it legitimizes it, as Obama has argued," Malinowski said. "That Obama is pursuing al-Qaeda more aggressively than the Bush administration did, while avoiding torture and secret prisons, demonstrates that it does."

But Malinowski acknowledged Obama's challenge in talking about Sept. 11, whether as a parable in support of American religious acceptance or to rally support for war.

"It was easier for George Bush to preach tolerance because when he did so it silenced the crazies in his party, whereas Obama just provokes them," he said. "Just as it's easier for Obama to justify the war in Afghanistan or drone strikes than it was for George Bush. The spasm of debate we're getting right now is a function of that phenomenon."

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