"Inside Obama's War on Terrorism," reporter Peter Baker's interview with Obama's newly appointed counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, won't see print until the January 17 Sunday Magazine, but was pushed onto nytimes.com in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner over Detroit.
The paper's reliable cliches are in place - Obama the moderate, seer of shades of gray, as opposed to the "swagger" and absolutist "black and white" philosophy of his predecessor George W. Bush.
Obama, then, found himself in a place where he seems most comfortable, splitting the difference on a tough issue and presenting it as the course of reasoned judgment rather than of dogmatic ideology. Where Bush saw black and white, Obama sees gray. Where Bush favored swagger, Obama is searching for a more supple blend of force and intellect. Where Bush saw Islamic extremism as an existential threat equivalent to Nazism or Communism, Obama contends that that view warps the situation out of proportion and plays into terrorists' hands by elevating their stature and allowing them - even without attacking again - to alter the nature of American society.
When the aviation screening and intelligence systems that Bush built failed to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian with ties to Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, from getting on a plane bound for Detroit with explosives in his underwear last month, a number of Obama's political opponents blamed the sitting president. If Bush's system was broken, they asked, why didn't Obama fix it?
There's a double standard at work here. After the 9-11 attacks, the Times didn't spent any time arguing that President Clinton's national security system was broken, focusing its attention instead on President Bush's reaction.
Baker followed with more defensiveness over Obama:
But the underlying complaint seemed less about any particular policy than about Obama himself - how he reacted, how he spoke, how he led. Although he held conference calls every day with Brennan, who was back in Washington, it took Obama three days to emerge from his Hawaiian vacation to address the matter in public, and when he did, he was typically cool and cerebral, with none of Bush's bring-it-on, dead-or-alive rhetoric. Never mind that Bush took six days to publicly address the 2001 case of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, or that Reid was charged in civilian court, not as an enemy combatant; critics like Cheney argued again that Obama did not believe America was at war. Bush felt it in his gut. Obama thinks about it in his head. If he rushed out in public to talk the minute something happened, wouldn't that play into the hands of those trying to instill fear in the American people? Shouldn't he prudently wait for more information? Yet with the country afraid, is it possible to overthink it?
Baker portrayed Obama as tough on terrorism, focusing on how many more drones he's launched over Pakistan targeting Al Qaeda's leadership. Yet Baker also emphasizing that "the civilian death rate of those killed by drone strikes has fallen to about 24 percent in 2009 from about 40 percent from 2006 to 2008."
But just because the death rate as a percentage has fallen doesn't mean the total number of civilians have. In fact, left-wing anti-war sites are up in arms about Obama having killed over 700 civilians in drone strikes in 2009, evidently surpassing the number killed while Bush was in office. One figures you'd hear more about such tragedies in the Times if Bush was still around giving the orders.
Over the course of Obama's first year in office, his drones have taken out a number of "high-value targets," including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban; Saad bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden; and Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a close ally of Al Qaeda. At the same time, according to estimates by Bergen and Tiedemann, the civilian death rate of those killed by drone strikes has fallen to about 24 percent in 2009 from about 40 percent from 2006 to 2008. Government officials insist that the civilian casualty rate is even lower. "I don't hear anyone inside the government, including people like me who came from outside, who thinks the Predator program is anything but essential," says a senior Obama counterterrorism official. "There are a lot of negatives, but it is completely essential."