Alex Simendinger, RealClear Politics
Published May 4, 2011
Barack Obama campaigned to become the president of change, the anti-Bush, and an original. This week, as president, Obama reveled in being not so much the stand-out but the stand-with leader -- a president who took the baton from his predecessor and did not stop running.
"[W]e went to war against al-Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies," he said Sunday after Osama bin Laden was killed. The next day he noted, "We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics."
"Every president has an inherited agenda and his own agenda," Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Clinton, explained in an interview. To pivot to their own portfolios, presidents find that they have to plow through the bequests. Obama inherited from Bush the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with al-Qaeda and its infamous leader, just as Bush inherited bin Laden from Clinton, who confronted al-Qaeda's deadly 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and its nearly successful attempt to sink a U.S. Navy ship of war. In American foreign policy, the continuity of values is constant from president to president, even as specific policies shift, Berger explained. "America's interests and values don't fundamentally change," he added. "The interests and values stay the same, but the context changes." Those principles, he said, include the safety of the American people, their economic well-being, and the interests of a free and democratic world.
That's why the Cold War straddled multiple presidencies, and why free trade policies have been advocated by Democrats and Republicans in the White House. Ensuring adequate supplies of energy, safeguarding global finance, and responding to potential security threats around the world are policy priorities that remain in the file drawer of any Oval Office occupant.
In that sense, it is not surprising that an attack on the United States as horrific as 9/11 would persuade multiple presidents that bin Laden had to go. "Given the consensus on punishing the perpetrators of 9/11, there was little chance that there would be a difference between administrations on capturing or killing Osama bin Laden," said George Edwards, a presidency scholar and political science professor at Texas A&M University. "There was no daylight between the parties. There is also broad consensus on the goal of counterterrorism, but less consensus on the policies to achieve the goal."
Even so, some of the distinctions tied to counterterrorism policies emphasized by candidate Obama during the 2008 campaign eased after he arrived in the White House to govern. "On balance I'd argue that indeed there has been more continuity than change," Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an e-mail.
"Certainly the buildup of intelligence structures after 9/11 was mostly a Bush administration effort, but Obama sustained it. Certainly the buildup of capability and commitment in Afghanistan -- which provided the base for launching the raid [on bin Laden] -- was mostly Obama's thing but Bush had (belatedly) started it," O'Hanlon added. "The decision to use Special Forces was Obama's, but Bush was certainly resolute on such things, too, and might well have made the same call. The efforts to get along with Pakistan have been attempted by both recent U.S. presidents, and both generally have been frustrating, though in different ways and for different reasons."
Former Bush administration officials suggested in interviews that the nature of the terrorism threat and the public's fear of Osama bin Laden as the head of al-Qaeda encouraged an unusual carry-over of policy as well as personnel from the Bush team to the Obama administration. As examples, one former Bush official pointed to key national security and defense holdovers: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. James Cartwright, White House Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center since 2008.
In explaining U.S. efforts to kill or capture the leader of al-Qaeda, Obama described the military and intelligence efforts "over the last 10 years," making clear that the hunt for bin Laden was a relentless and shared continuum begun after 9/11 under his predecessor. The notion of "tirelessly" working to avenge American deaths was also prominent in remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was a New York senator when bin Laden's hand-picked teams hijacked passenger jets and piloted them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and an open field in Pennsylvania, killing close to 3,000 people.
"I know there are some who doubted this day would ever come, who questioned our resolve and our reach," Secretary Clinton said a day after the U.S. strike in Pakistan. "But let us remind ourselves: This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done."
Obama's account of almost a nonpartisan "American presidency" relentlessly pursuing the same goal impressed members of Bush's foreign policy team this week, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also served as George W. Bush's national security adviser. Rice was an NSC aide in George H.W. Bush's administration, and knows well that foreign policy is not always a seamless continuum across parties.
"As President Bush said in Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, 'We will not falter, we will not fail.' He meant the United States of America, and this is a good story for continuity across two presidencies," Rice said May 3 during an interview on MSNBC. Her praise for Obama was generous: "This clearly shows that the president and his team did a superb job."
For years at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, aide Sean McCormack used the president's words -- "will not falter, will not fail" -- as a screen saver, a constant and visible reminder. The post-9/11 policy to take out bin Laden and thwart al-Qaeda was akin to a national pledge. "This is not about electoral politics. This is about the coin of the realm: the word of the United States," said McCormack, who departed the Bush administration in 2009 as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs after a long foreign-service career.
Eliminating bin Laden as the world's most renowned purveyor of terror necessitated nearly a decade of intelligence reforms, operational innovations and technological adaptations, McCormack pointed out. White House officials said this week that the compound in which bin Laden was living near Islamabad was built in 2005. It is not clear that bin Laden was holed up there with family members for nearly all of Bush's second term. But what is known is that U.S. counterterrorism techniques and the tools used to find and execute him on May 1 did not exist in the fall of 2001, McCormack and Rice noted. They evolved and improved during Obama's term.
Time, determination and techniques made a difference. Career and political appointees transitioned from the Bush team into the Obama team. They learned. John Brennan, during a briefing this week, noted that he had been "after bin Laden" for 15 years. The professionals made use of organizational innovations, and new intelligence-gathering techniques and technologies -- some of which were criticized during the Bush years.
Almost immediately after announcing bin Laden’s death and describing the secret mission into Pakistan, the White House began fielding numerous questions about whether the harsh interrogation techniques used against captured suspects during the Bush administration -- techniques condemned by Democrats during the 2008 presidential campaign and renounced by the incoming Obama administration -- were responsible for setting the intelligence community on its hunt for bin Laden’s trusted courier. That courier, living near Islamabad, was the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader, according to government officials.
Initially, Obama’s team told journalists that customary interrogation of terrorist suspect Khalid Sheik Mohammed had revealed information that proved useful to the operation. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in interviews this week, also discounted the assertion that waterboarding produced information used by the Obama administration -- an assertion made by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). Other former CIA officials, interviewed on television May 3, also denied that waterboarding of detainees produced the actionable intelligence needed to find bin Laden. But CIA Director Leon Panetta, in a televised interview May 3, appeared to suggest that a mix of information derived after various interrogation sessions had indeed proved useful to the administration.
“We had a multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees, but we also had information from other sources, as well,” Panetta told NBC anchor Brian Williams. “So it's a little difficult to say that it came from one source of information that we got. They used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees.”
When asked if waterboarding was part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta replied, “That’s correct.”
Panetta himself is a study in continuity. He arrived in Washington as a moderate young Republican lawyer in the Nixon administration, resigned the GOP because he thought it was moving away from its roots, became a Democrat and served eight terms as a House member from California. He left Congress for the Clinton White House in 1993, and now serves as a Cabinet-level official under Obama.
"These are career military and government officials," McCormack added. "It's not necessarily political. Now, the will to move on policy issues is political, but the day-to-day efforts to maximize the efficiencies are not Democratic or Republican. The core of it is how to best defend the country."