On Aug. 1, 2007, I heard Barack Obama, whose presidential candidacy was feeling increasingly quixotic, deliver a foreign-policy speech in Washington. The speech would become instantly famous for Obama's chesty declaration that as president he would attack "high-value" terrorists in Pakistan even without Pakistani approval. That was the red meat; but it wasn't the theme, and it wasn't what I recalled later.
"After 9/11," Obama said, "our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story... Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear." He promised a post-post-9/11 foreign policy that would replace the fearfulness and belligerence of the George W. Bush era with a new sense of openness and opportunity. One reason voters ultimately flocked to Obama was that he promised to liberate Americans from the darkness into which they had been plunged by the terrorist attacks.
Now that the ninth anniversary of 9/11 -- the second under President Obama -- has arrived, it is fair to ask: Has he succeeded? Has Obama lifted that pall of fear and the overweening obsession with Islamic terrorism? Obama has been -- for the most part -- true to his words. But I think the answer to the larger questions is no.
The "color-coded politics of fear" represented only one side of the "war on terror" that Obama inherited. That side -- the dark side -- meant the torture of detainees, imprisonment without recourse, "extraordinary rendition," the vast and sometimes inhuman machinery of homeland security. The visionary element -- the Bush side, as it were, rather than the Dick Cheney side -- involved the hoped-for transformation of the Islamic world through regime change and democracy promotion. What is really remarkable, and deeply disturbing, about the public mood today is that despite al Qaeda's failure to mount an attack on American soil since 9/11, the dark side -- Cheney's legacy -- has persisted, while the transformative vision has come to seem like a fable, the artifact of an old naivete.