The 'Obama doctrine' on national security begins to emerge

He rejects Bush's 'global war on terror' as too absolutist. But a top adviser says Obama will 'confront Al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists.'

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Afghans interact Thursday with US soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, outside the headquarters of Afghan Border Police on the outskirts of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. President Obama has deployed thousands of US troops to southern Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the country's Aug. 20 presidential ballot.

­President Obama is attempting to carve out his own distinct path to fight terrorists worldwide – and that includes abandoning use of the term "global war on terror."

Accused of being a foreign-policy dove during the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama is establishing his bona fides on national security: He has pledged more forces for Afghanistan and expanded the size of the US Army; he has listened to his commanders to slow the drawdown of forces in Iraq so as not to undermine security gains; and he has continued the drone attacks that, now, have apparently killed the Taliban leader of Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud.

At the same time, he has sought to set himself apart from former President Bush. He has promised to close the US detention camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, discontinued "enhanced" interrogation practices, and vowed to approach troublesome countries such as Iran and North Korea with more diplomatic nuance.

This has left some confusion about how Obama will address national security problems. Critics on the right say Obama has dismantled Bush administration policies; those on the left complain that he's essentially embraced them.

Neither is correct, says John Brennan, a top White House counterterrorism adviser. Rather, Obama is forging his own way, says Mr. Brennan.

"The president rejects an absolutist approach or the imposition of a rigid ideology on our problems," Brennan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, on Thursday. "Like the world itself, his views are nuanced, not simplistic – practical, not ideological."

Brennan, a former top official at the Central Intelligence Agency, was dispatched to defend the Obama national security policy this week. Amid debate over healthcare and the economy, national security remains a major concern, and Brennan's job is to help frame the debate over Obama's policies on such matters.

Obama sees the world differently from Mr. Bush, and he will redefine national security needs, Brennan said. Obama has dropped the "war on terror" designation, Brennan said, because it animated a black-or-white, with-us-or-against-us mind set.

"Yes, the United States will confront Al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists, so that it enjoys no safe haven," Brennan said. "But describing our efforts as a global war only plays into the warped narrative that Al Qaeda propagates. It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the US is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world."

Brennan said the president has been decisive when confronted with proposals to conduct military operations or initiate programs against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

"Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists before they can kill more innocent men, women, and children," he said.

But even as Obama appears in some ways to be more aggressive on national security matters, he may be making a political calculation.

The American public's patience with war is wearing thin. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday found a growing sense of public frustration with the mission there.

In answer to the question "do you favor or oppose the US war in Afghanistan?" 54 percent of respondents said they oppose the war – the highest level of opposition since 2006. That's up from May, when 48 percent opposed the war.


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