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Ten years on: Obama's war on terrorism in rhetoric and practice



    1. Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.
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    • I would like to thank Richard Aldrich, Stuart Croft and the anonymous reviewer for their insightful suggestions for improvements, and JRC for the encouragement and support to get this article completed.


Ten years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, the United States remains embroiled in a long-term struggle with what George W. Bush termed the existential threat of international terrorism. On the campaign trail, his successor as US President, Barack Obama, promised to reboot the ‘war on terror’. He claimed that his new administration would step back from the rhetoric and much of the Bush administration policy, conducting a counterterrorism campaign that would be more morally acceptable, more focused and more effective—smarter, better, nimbler, stronger. This article demonstrates, however, that those expecting wholesale changes to US counterterrorism policy misread Obama's intentions. It argues that Obama always intended to deepen Bush's commitment to counterterrorism while at the same time ending the ‘distraction’ of the Iraq War. Rather than being trapped by Bush's institutionalized construction of a global war on terror, the continuities in counterterrorism can be explained by Obama's shared conception of the imperative of reducing the terrorist threat to the US. The article assesses whether Obama has pursued a more effective counterterrorism policy than his predecessor and explores how his rhetoric has been reconstituted as the actions of his policy have unfolded. By addressing his policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, Guantánamo Bay and torture, the uses of unmanned drone attacks and domestic wire-tapping, this article argues that Obama's ‘war’ against terrorism is not only in keeping with the assumptions and priorities of the last ten years but also that it is just as problematic as that of his predecessor.