Terms of Engagement

Darkness and Light

Barack Obama promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." But we're still living in the shadows.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Aug. 1, 2007, I heard Barack Obama, whose presidential candidacy was feeling increasingly quixotic, deliver a foreign-policy speech in Washington. The speech would become instantly famous for Obama’s chesty declaration that as president he would attack "high-value" terrorists in Pakistan even without Pakistani approval. That was the red meat; but it wasn’t the theme, and it wasn’t what I recalled later.

"After 9/11," Obama said, "our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story… Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear." He promised a post-post-9/11 foreign policy that would replace the fearfulness and belligerence of the George W. Bush era with a new sense of openness and opportunity. One reason voters ultimately flocked to Obama was that he promised to liberate Americans from the darkness into which they had been plunged by the terrorist attacks.

Now that the ninth anniversary of 9/11 — the second under President Obama — has arrived, it is fair to ask: Has he succeeded? Has Obama lifted that pall of fear and the overweening obsession with Islamic terrorism? Obama has been — for the most part — true to his words. But I think the answer to the larger questions is no.

The "color-coded politics of fear" represented only one side of the "war on terror" that Obama inherited. That side — the dark side — meant the torture of detainees, imprisonment without recourse, "extraordinary rendition," the vast and sometimes inhuman machinery of homeland security. The visionary element — the Bush side, as it were, rather than the Dick Cheney side — involved the hoped-for transformation of the Islamic world through regime change and democracy promotion. What is really remarkable, and deeply disturbing, about the public mood today is that despite al Qaeda’s failure to mount an attack on American soil since 9/11, the dark side — Cheney’s legacy — has persisted, while the transformative vision has come to seem like a fable, the artifact of an old naivete.

In that 2007 speech, Obama explicitly repudiated the use of torture, saying that "the days of compromising our values are over." And he has, in fact, ended the practices he considers torture. But he has not convinced the public. At the height of Obama’s popularity, in April 2009, a significant plurality of Americans asserted in a CBS News poll that waterboarding was justified — even though an overwhelming majority agreed with the president that the practice constituted torture. Even Cheney never made so bald a claim. Between half and two-thirds of respondents consistently oppose closing the Guantanamo Bay facility. Americans actually have a more negative view of Islam today than they did five years ago; perhaps the reason why a rising fraction of the public believes that Obama is a Muslim is that they can think of no worse an epithet.

On the other hand, the appetite for transformative adventures has evaporated. The public views the war in Iraq as a failure. A full 43 percent now say that even the war in Afghanistan was a "mistake" from the outset. And large majorities take a dim view of democracy promotion in general. This, then, is the national mood nine years after the terrorist attacks: sullen, suspicious, defensive, borderline isolationist. (For more on this, see Scott Malcomson’s fine new memoir on the subject, Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11.) I’m beginning to wonder if, back in 2007, I should have paid less attention to Obama’s sweeping new formulation and more to his hyperbolic attempt to prove to a wary public that he wasn’t going to be soft on terrorism.

Obama has trod carefully — perhaps too carefully — on issues like the closing of Guantánamo or the detention of alleged terrorists without trial; but these are intrinsically hard questions, and in neither case would be it fair to say that he has trafficked in the color-coded politics of fear. Nevertheless, the administration’s policies have had the inadvertent effect of enhancing the national preoccupation with the threat from the Islamic world. From the very outset of his tenure, Obama has seen his great mission to be undoing the harm that his predecessor did in the Middle East. He gave his first interview as president to news channel Al Arabiya; he made his first phone calls to Middle Eastern leaders. By far, the most important speech of his first year in office was the Cairo address in which he promised a "new beginning" in the Middle East. And the consuming foreign-policy issues of his tenure have been the nuclear standoff in Iran and the war in Afghanistan — a war, Obama has consistently argued, that America cannot afford to lose.

Unfortunately, the Middle East is the world’s most intransigent region, a place where U.S. efforts of any kind produce the most modest outcomes. Obama has "succeeded" in Iraq by redefining success as getting out. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the United States is spending $100 billion a year, and of course precious lives, while the effort to persuade the Afghan people that their government is worth defending is, if anything, going backward. Obama continues to insist that Afghanistan is the central front in the real war on terror, but the recent report of the Afghanistan Study Group concludes flatly that "the U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice."

George Friedman, head of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, recently wrote that "the most significant effect of 9/11" was that "the United States became obsessed with a single region." He concedes that this was inevitable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Today, though, he argues, it is necessary to ask: "What does the United States lose elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?" Friedman shares the Afghanistan Study Group’s skepticism about the consequences of military failure there, but he also makes the cold-blooded assertion that "the United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States."

Kibitzers like Friedman, or me, don’t have to deal with U.S. public opinion, of course. Another terrorist attack would make it even harder than it already is for Obama to advance a post-post-9/11 strategy. And I don’t think Friedman is right in claiming that, for example, Russia exploited U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East to attack Georgia in 2008. But there are undeniably grave costs to that preoccupation, and not only in blood and treasure. Doubling down in Afghanistan has further ratcheted up the public sense of menace — they’ll attack us here if we
don’t stop them there — while the failure to make headway has deepened public cynicism about America’s capacity to shape a better world. Obama has adopted from Bush the premise that the United States must find a way to tame the Islamic world, though he has tried to go about it in a very different way. But though this may be true in the long run, in the short run it has turned out to be a thankless task.

The Obama administration cannot, of course, abandon the Middle East peace initiative it has just helped foster, or ignore Iran’s nuclear aspirations. But it can pivot from the "arc of crisis," as Zbigniew Brzezinski once dismally labeled the broader Middle East, to the world of opportunity that Obama, as candidate, so successfully invoked. In this regard, I took heart from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. After a ritual mention of Middle Eastern crises, Clinton moved on to relations with European allies and NATO, development assistance, the need to incorporate emerging powers into the global order, regional cooperation, reform of the United Nations and other global institutions, and the obligation to defend and nurture fragile democracies. (Of course, she ended by talking about Iran policy as the successful consummation of all these initiatives.) This is the long-term agenda that has been obscured by crisis.

Are the American people in the mood to hear about global architecture? I don’t know; they’re in a very bad mood. Nevertheless, we should say on 9/11/10, as Obama did in 2007, "It is time to turn the page."

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