Attacks Were Defining Moment for Obama

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In marking his first Sept. 11 anniversary as commander in chief, President Obama told a solemn audience at the Pentagon on Friday, including relatives of those who died there eight years ago, that "no passage of time and no dark skies can ever dull the meaning of this moment."

It was not hollow rhetoric. The attacks and the steps that the Bush administration took to prevent another one have defined the way Obama views the world and have influenced, more than any other event, his understanding of national security.

That assessment comes from senior Obama advisers, including Bush-era veterans, and from a review of his past remarks about the terrorist strikes and the way the country responded to them. But his critics on both the left and right say that Obama has either drawn the wrong lessons from Sept. 11 or allowed the event to distract from national security issues with potentially more lasting consequences, including climate change and the rising ambitions of regional powers.

"The politics of the post-9/11 world require Obama to say he is defined by it," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "Certainly, many of the things he has inherited, the things he has to deal with, are the result of 9/11, and he approaches the conflict in a profoundly different way than the last administration. But it must still be seen as central to what he spends his political capital on."

Obama has written and spoken about Sept. 11, 2001, many times, and since taking office, he has recalibrated U.S. war efforts abroad, detention and interrogation policies at home, and even the language his administration uses to speak about terrorism, based on his interpretation of that morning and its aftermath.

His decisions to prohibit torture in interrogation, close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and speak directly to the Muslim world from an Arab capital have all been informed by the conclusions he has drawn about how and why the 9/11 attacks were carried out. His push for a stronger nonproliferation regimen, for example, is rooted in his analysis of the threat revealed on that day...

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