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Christmas Day attack: How tough is Obama on terrorism?

Conservatives say President Obama is not aggressive enough against terrorism. Liberals say he's little different from Bush. How he handles the fallout from the Christmas Day attack could show who is right.

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That tack is epitomized by the decision to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the 9/11 masterminds, in a US court in Manhattan.

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Indeed, Obama’s Guantánamo policy could become fodder for critics in the Christmas Day attack case. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it landed in Detroit. He has told investigators that he was trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen, where he lived for several months this year.

Some of the ringleaders of the attack on Flight 253 may have been released from Guantánamo Bay during the Bush years, The Wall Street Journal reported. Though this doesn't directly implicate Obama, it throws into question the wisdom of releasing more detainees.

“What has changed is the approach,” says former CIA agent Kent Clizbe, an outspoken Obama critic. “During the Bush years, it was ‘go get ‘em,’ take the fight to them, find them and destroy them by whatever means necessary. Now it’s become a law enforcement driven approach….”

Obama the commander in chief

Yet, in many respects, Obama has continued – and in some cases intensified – the militaristic doctrines of the Bush administration. Adding more than 50,000 troops to Afghanistan is the most obvious example.

But more relevant, perhaps, is the administration’s stepped-up military relationship with Yemen. Two US-backed air strikes in Yemen last week reportedly killed 30 militants, including two Al Qaeda chieftains.

Yemen is the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who stoked Hasan’s anti-US anger through e-mail conversations. He might have been killed in the strikes. In fact, the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda said the Christmas Day attack was in retribution for the air strikes.

Obama used forceful language Monday in vowing to destroy Al Qaeda, and again Tuesday in vowing to get to the bottom of the “systemic failure” that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab – who was on a broad terrorism watch list – to board a flight to Detroit.

But in congressional hearings, Republicans will push Obama to make firmer statements about his commitment to an offensive war on terror.

“On the threat from terrorism, Mr. Bush exercised leadership. It is time for President Obama to ditch the political spinmeisters and focus on making responsible and consistent national security decisions to keep our nation safe,” wrote Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House committee on intelligence, in The Detroit Free Press Tuesday.

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