Klaidman: Defining the Obama Doctrine

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama vowed to roll back Bush-era abuses and restore the proper balance between security and freedom. A few days after being sworn in, he elated progressives by banning torture, beginning the process of closing Guantánamo, and putting military commissions on ice. But a year on, a majority of Bush's counterterror policies remain largely, if not entirely, intact. Critics on the left call Obama "Bush lite"; meanwhile, Dick Cheney hammers him for aiding and comforting the enemy. So who's right? And what philosophy is the administration adopting as a guide in the war on terror?

Neither criticism hits the mark. Dismantling the CIA's enhanced-interrogation program and shuttering Gitmo are substantive reforms that improve our global image. The counterterror policies that remain—including indefinite military detention and warrantless wiretapping—are now on firmer legal footing. Obama's lawyers have sought the input of Congress and the blessing of the courts.

These changes aren't just window dressing; they represent a critical conceptual shift. Under Bush, policy sometimes seemed to be driven as much by a desire to vindicate ideology as a need to protect the American people. (The overreaching probably did more to set back the cause of executive power than advance it.) Obama starts from a different premise: that the tools we rely on to combat terrorism should be grounded in the rule of law and subject to congressional and judicial review.

But don't mistake Obama's faith in American values for Pollyannaish optimism. His view of the world is tragic—he understands we're up against a nihilistic enemy. That allows for the possibility of steering the law in ways that may not be entirely consistent with our ideals. For example: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed can be tried openly in New York City, but Obama, however reluctantly, could conclude that a future Qaeda suspect must be locked up in a military brig without the possibility of a trial. And when Obama banned torture, he did so by executive order—not legislation—an edict he can undo with the stroke of a pen. His is a carefully balanced approach that does not lend itself to pithy slogans. It reflects a melding of hardheaded realism and aspirational idealism that looks to be the hallmark of an emerging Obama doctrine.