Obama Is Still Fighting Bush's National Security Legacy

The president's hesitance to intervene in Syria and eagerness to close Guantanamo Bay underscore how different he is from his predecessor.

President Barack Obama arrives for a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013.  (National Journal)

President Obama is 100 days into his second term, 1,561 days into his presidency. But Tuesday's press conference left no doubt that the foreign policy legacy of former President George W. Bush very much remains a driving force at today's White House. That was clear from how Obama answered questions on Syria and Guantanamo Bay and his overall approach to terrorism.

As he noted pointedly in one response, it's been more than a decade since the Sept. 11 attacks. "We should be wiser."

Though he never mentioned Bush's name during the 47-minute session, there was no doubting whose policies he was targeting. They were those of the 43rd president he so heartily praised just five days ago at the dedication of the Bush Presidential Center in Texas. But that praise did not erase the fundamentally different approaches of the two leaders to war-making, foreign policy, and terrorism.

The difference was starkest when Obama was pressed in the first question to explain why he seems to be backing away from his earlier declaration that he would not allow Syria to use chemical weapons against its own people, crossing what the president earlier called a "red line." In response, Obama used a word often associated with former President George H. W. Bush: "caution." In doing so, he drew a clear contrast with how the younger Bush went to war against Iraq based on intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction.

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria," he acknowledged before launching a recitation of what he doesn't know. "We don't know how they were used, when they were used, (or) who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes exactly what happened." He stressed that when he is considering military action or taking steps to protect the nation's security, "I've got to make sure I've got the facts."

That, he said, "is what the American people would expect." He warned of the consequences of acting rashly. "If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do."

Unlike what he believes was Bush's rush to war in Iraq, Obama outlined a go-slow reaction to what he calls the "game-changing" use of chemical weapons in Syria. Noting a desire to have regional and international support for any response, he said, "It's important for us to do this in a prudent way." To that end, he said he has ordered his team "to do everything we can to investigate and establish with some certainty what exactly has happened in Syria." He promised to use "all the assets and resources" at his disposal while coordinating with other Middle Eastern countries and the United Nations.

When asked what he means by "game changer," he said he means "that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us." But he refused to talk about the specific options.

The president also was more than willing to outline his differences with Bush policy when asked his reaction to the challenge of so many detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility maintaining a hunger strike. Currently, 100 of the 166 detainees have refused to eat since Feb. 6, raising concerns that some detainees may die. His response was to cite his 2008 campaign promise to close the facility.

"It is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo," he said. He still hopes Congress will reconsider its ban on him keeping that promise. "I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo," he said, calling it "not necessary" to keep America safe. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists."

Promising to "go back at this" with Congress, he said the current policy is "not sustainable." He derided "the notion that we're going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity" at a time when the war in Iraq is ended and the fighting in Afghanistan is winding down. He bluntly suggested defenders of the facility find it "easy to demagogue the issue." Without mentioning Bush by name, he said he understands why certain decisions were made in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "But we're now over a decade out," he said. "We should be wiser. We should have more experience ... in how we prosecute terrorists." He predicted the problems at the Cuban facility are "going to get worse. It's going to fester."

At other points in the press conference, the president took positions that were very reminiscent of some of the things Bush said after 9/11. In 2001, Bush urged Americans to go shopping and go to restaurants and show the terrorists they could not disrupt the country's daily routines. Now, 12 years later, Obama gave similar advice to those anxious after the Boston Marathon bombings.

"We're not going to stop living our lives because warped, twisted individuals try to intimidate us," he declared. "We're going to do what we do, which is go to work, raise our kids, go to ball games, run in marathons."

On domestic issues, the president reacted with humor when ABC's Jonathan Karl reminded him of several recent setbacks to his agenda in Congress and asked him if he still had "the juice" to get anything through Capitol Hill. Laughing, Obama replied, "Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should pack it up and go home. Golly." Recalling a famous quote from Mark Twain, he added, "Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."

Instead, he blamed Congress and its "dysfunction" for his problems and made it clear he didn't feel responsible for what happens there. "You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That's their job."