Obama's wars

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An article in the upcoming New York Times Magazine describes President Obama's two wars. One with al-Qaeda; the other at home over how to fight. Anchor Jeb Sharp speaks with the author, Peter Baker.

MS. JEB SHARP: While most of us focused our attention on Haiti today, the fight against terrorism is never far from the headlines. An article in the upcoming New York Times magazine describes President Obama's two wars; one with al-Qaeda, the other at home over how to fight. The article is called Obama's War Over Terror. It was written by reporter Peter Baker who joins us now from Washington. Peter Baker, your piece in the New York Times magazine lays out the similarities and differences between President Obama's approach to terrorism and President George W. Bush's. What was the essential question you were trying to answer there?

MR. PETER BAKER: What we were trying to look at was how does a new President come in and conceive and wage a war against extremists that he inherited. And what we found I think is that there's a lot of continuity. More continuity perhaps than different partisans in the debate would like to acknowledge even as President Obama has made some significant changes. What he has inherited from President Bush, a lot of it is kept. Whether it be the drone program in the tribal areas of Pakistan where he has actually expanded it; whether it be mechanisms like the military commissions or preventive detention of terror suspects without trial altogether, or the power of rendition, or any number of techniques or tactics that were used in the war against terrorists under President Bush. And what people forget is that that war evolved under President Bush. The first term President Bush was different than the second term President Bush. And what President Obama has done, in fact, is adopted and accelerated the evolution that was already under way in the last two year of his predecessor's tenure.

MS. SHARP: And what would you say then that he has changed?

MR. BAKER: Well, what he's done is sort of shaved off some of the more controversial edges of what was going on under the last administration and he's solidified and cemented some of the changes that were already under way. For instance, he banned, the first thing he did when he came into office practically was to order Guantanamo prison closed in a year and to ban the enhanced interrogation techniques, like water boarding, that had been used by the CIA. But on the other hand, you know, nobody had been water boarded by the CIA in years and President Bush, in fact, had set a goal of closing Guantanamo as well, he simply never gave it a deadline because he found it too difficult and never managed to actually do it. Here we are a year later, President Obama has also found it too difficult to do and Guantanamo remains open. He's been more aggressive, perhaps, in some of the evolution of what was going on in terms of counter-terrorism, but it hasn't been a wholesale rejection of everything that happened in the past.

MS. SHARP: And part of the point of your piece is to say look, there's the approach to counter-terrorism and then there's the national debate and the war we're having here about the approaches. And what you find really, is that the left is really quite disappointed with Obama; the right is actually relieved, but very few people on the right are willing to praise President Obama for staying tough on many of the policies.

MR. BAKER: Well that's right. I mean this is an interesting and very characteristic example of the Obama presidency. He's under attack from the ACLU on the left; from Vice President Cheney on the right. There are a number of Bush veterans that I've talked to, about a half dozen of the people who had been really very involved in counter-terrorism and foreign policy, who said that they were by and large comfortable with a lot of what President Obama was doing in terms of terrorism. They didn't agree with everything, they had some significant disagreements on a couple big decisions, but broadly they think that there's more continuity than not. Mostly they don't want to say that in public for a few reasons. One, they're angry at President Obama for what they see as Bush-blaming. They see him as being unnecessarily harsh on his predecessor given that he has in fact kept a lot of the same policies in place. Two, they're a little nervous about being chastised by the Cheney camp which doesn't view it the same way that they do. And three, they also worry in a practical way that if they were to come out and say yes, what Obama is doing is pretty close to what we were doing, then that would make it difficult for President Obama to continue some of these policies, because then he would simply be increasingly attacked from his own left and the base of his party.

MS. SHARP: And even as he keeps tough policies in place, he's very focused on softening the rhetoric. I wonder what you can say about the importance of one versus the other.

MR. BAKER: Right. He doesn't like, for instance, the use of the word war on terror. He doesn't like that phrase, a very common phrase under the Bush administration because he argues that terror is a tactic not an enemy. He calls it a war against al-Qaeda. He has made a point of trying to reach out to the Muslim world, his big speech in Cairo last summer, and his administration talks about attacking the upstream factors. In other words, the conditions and circumstances that, in their view, fuel extremism in the Muslim world and try to take back some of the more, what they see as bellicose rhetoric, that they believe is not helpful in terms of that. But you see in these last few weeks since the Christmas Day plot, that that tone can open the door to political criticism back at home that he doesn't fully understand the threat or take it as seriously as he ought to. And you saw the reaction that he has had to that. He came out five or six times and be very aggressive in his public posture, talking about yes we are at war, and we're going to win this war which at least in some ways was intended to quiet critics who think, in his view, misunderstood his position.

MS. SHARP: Finally, Peter Baker, do you think that the tension between these two poles and between the idea of the President as a fighter versus the President as a lawyer, is it being resolved at all? Or is this battle within the United States about approaches just going to continue?

MR. BAKER: Well I do think he did inherit two wars; two struggles. There's the one against al-Qaeda and it's allies, which is a tough enough one. And then there's this one here at home about what does it mean for us to be at war with al-Qaeda. What does it mean for us to balance security and liberty? How do we resolve these very difficult issues about what to do with the people who are at Guantanamo? How do preserve the values that people perceive to be a hallmark of the American tradition while at the same time not letting ourselves be taken advantage of by people who would do us harm? And in some ways, that struggle is as difficult, or more difficult than the actual sort of front line against extremists in Pakistan because it really pits American against American in terms of what it means to wage this war.

MS. SHARP: Peter Baker's piece Obama's War Over Terror appears in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. Peter Baker, thanks very much.

MR. BAKER: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.