Attacks Were Defining Moment for Obama

Many Decisions Now Rooted in Threat of That Day, but Critics Question Focus

Leaders join families of victims to mark the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
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.

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