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In America's Decade-Long Quest for Bin Laden, Continuity Triumphed

In America's Decade-Long Quest for Bin Laden, Continuity Triumphed

By Alexis Simendinger - 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."

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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