A course correction that bred success

A COURSE CORRECTION THAT BRED SUCCESS…. When it comes to progressive criticism of President Obama, arguably the most persuasive relates to civil liberties and the national security state. The routine law-breaking of the previous administration is gone, but those hoping for a significant break from Bush-era policies have an entirely legitimate beef.

That said, Obama’s approach to national security is not a carbon copy of his predecessor’s. In fact, this week, in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, those on the right who aren’t dismissing the development’s significance are saying Obama only succeeded because he followed the trail Bush already blazed.

As Condoleezza Rice put it, there was “continuity across two presidencies.”

Today, National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh explains the extent to which this argument is wrong, and credits the successful mission in Abbottabad to this White House’s “new conception of terrorism.”

Behind Obama’s takedown of the Qaida leader this week lies a profound discontinuity between administrations — a major strategic shift in how to deal with terrorists. From his first great public moment when, as a state senator, he called Iraq a “dumb war,” Obama indicated that he thought that George W. Bush had badly misconceived the challenge of 9/11. And very quickly upon taking office as president, Obama reoriented the war back to where, in the view of many experts, it always belonged. He discarded the idea of a “global war on terror” that conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah. Obama replaced it with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.

This reorientation was part of Obama’s reset of America’s relations with the world. Bush, having gradually expanded his definition of the war to include all Islamic “extremists,” had condemned the United States to a kind of permanent war, one that Americans had to fight all but alone because no one else agreed on such a broadly defined enemy. (Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, arguably had legitimate political aims that al-Qaida did not, which is one reason they distanced themselves from bin Laden.) In Obama’s view, only by focusing narrowly on true transnational terrorism, and winning back all of the natural allies that the United States had lost over the previous decade, could he achieve America’s goal of uniting the world around the goal of extinguishing al-Qaida.

In fundamental ways, Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways, and only one of those visions makes sense and has borne fruit.

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Bush’s.