One of Barack Obama's earliest acts as president was to discard the phrase "war on terror," yet he has been waging just such a campaign these past four years -- with a skillful mix of subtlety and ferocity. Several major al Qaeda plots have been thwarted by aggressive, innovative intelligence programs, often conducted in a deeply networked fashion with our allies. In addition to the killing of Osama bin Laden, many other operatives in the late terrorist capo's organization have found themselves on the receiving end of commando raids or Hellfire missiles, from Waziristan to Yemen -- and beyond. Those not yet in the crosshairs have gone to ground, or dare to move about only sparingly, furtively.
Obama's counter-terrorism strategy has extended to other malefactors as well, from madmen like Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army to the Libyan state terrorist, Moammar Qaddafi. Kony is being hunted by local African forces of order, which are themselves being assisted by about a hundred American special operators. Qaddafi was taken down when Obama engineered and enabled a NATO air campaign that began by preventing a slaughter of innocents in Benghazi, then went on to effect regime change in Tripoli -- in a far less costly manner than was undertaken in Iraq by George W. Bush.
Indeed, the difference in the approaches taken by our two most recent presidents really speaks to there being two different wars on terror. Bush chose to attack other nations in his attempt to create a less permissive international environment for terrorist networks. Obama has decided to take the more direct approach: going straight after the networks.
Bush's strategy proved exceptionally costly and highly problematic in Iraq, and even his initial success in "going small" in Afghanistan was all too soon overtaken by a stalemate-inducing impulse to send large numbers of troops there. Obama's concept of operations, on the other hand, has been working well, and will never break the bank or exhaust our military -- especially in the wake of his realizing, and reversing, the folly of surging more troops into Afghanistan, as senior military leaders persuaded him to do early in his presidency.
It is tempting, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of 9/11, to believe that the problem posed by terrorist networks is at last well on its way to being solved -- and this may be the case. But this is a moment to remember, in a cautionary way, that there was an earlier war on terror, crafted by Ronald Reagan and his close advisers in the mid-1980s, that began subtly and skillfully, too -- yet which soon foundered.
In the weeks and months after the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 242 Americans, Reagan and his team became deeply concerned about the terrorism problem. But it was the abduction and torture of the CIA's Beirut station chief, William Buckley, in March 1984 that truly brought matters to a head. Secretary of State George Shultz called a Saturday meeting of terrorism experts, led by Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, and the team brainstormed until a strategy emerged, one that called for something that strongly resembles the kind of campaign that Obama is now pursuing. Rather, the resemblance is in reverse, as Reagan's plan came first.