From the minute that President George W. Bush declared "our war on terror" in an address to Congress nine days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he faced challenges defining it and saying when it would end. Republicans, rallying behind a popular wartime president, were satisfied with Bush's statement that it would never end. And Democrats, wary of being branded as weak, generally tried to avoid the question.
Now, 12 years after Bush's declaration of war and safely into his second term, President Obama comes forward to state what he sees as the simple truth: "This war, like all wars, must end." That, he told his audience at the National Defense University, is "what history advises" and "what our democracy demands."
In provoking a national conversation about the right counter-terrorism strategy, the president guarantees criticism from Republicans who have spent the last decade insisting that Democrats don't grasp the threat posed by terrorists and want to return to the days when, they contend, terrorism was treated as an intelligence or law enforcement matter. John Kerry, who is now secretary of state, certainly drew attacks when he ran against Bush in 2004 and suggested "the war on terror is less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation."
Immediately, Bush shot back, "I disagree – strongly disagree.... After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got."
But on Thursday, Obama firmly declared, "Every war has come to an end."
Despite the starkly different rhetoric, though, the clouds kicked up by the coming attacks should not obscure the reality that – with the exception of the Iraq war – the approaches followed by Bush and Obama turned out to be quite similar. Bush boasted in 2004 that he was "using every tool of finance, intelligence, law enforcement and military power to break terror networks." He pointed to assets frozen and leaders captured or killed and noted that there had been no attacks on the homeland since 9/11. That is not much different from the claims made in Thursday's speech when Obama noted the steps he had taken and the al-Qaida leaders killed and contended, "We are safer because of our efforts."
In his address on Sept. 20, 2001, Bush had predicted that it would be difficult to find an end to the war he was declaring. It would not end, he said, "with a decisive liberation of territory." He added, "Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen." In effect, he warned the nation that it would be indefinite, stating, "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."
Now, his successor as president has tried to narrow the war's scope, stating it was targeted at the specific group that planned and carried out 9/11, al-Qaida. "We must finish the work of defeating al-Qaida and its associated forces," said Obama, pledging to continue to marshal "all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas." But he was far less sweeping than Bush had been, stating, "Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror."
Pointedly, he took aim at the phrase the Bush administration started using within two months of the 9/11 attacks, the "global war on terror." It is a phrase the Obama administration had banned as early as 2009, but never really addressed by the president. Now, past his last campaign, Obama offered an explanation. "Beyond Afghanistan," he said, "we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
Patiently, Obama stressed that battle cannot be waged without significant partnerships with other countries, citing the aid of governments in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali. "Much of our best counter-terrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence; the arrest and prosecution of terrorists."
More than a decade after 9/11, Obama also recognizes that this is a "new phase" in the justification for the methods used against terrorists. "America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion," he said. "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance." He also stressed that glib talk of a never-ending global war has other ramifications. "A perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways," he said.
In part, Obama is selling nuance here. And, politically, nuance is always a tough sell. Certainly, there was little nuance in the Bush speech that first declared this war. Perhaps the most-remembered line from that speech was Bush's warning to other governments. "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make," said the president. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."