If there was one thing the left was certain about in 2008 it was this: George W. Bush had catastrophically undermined America's world reputation with his unprovoked aggression and use of torture. The advent of Obama would reverse the damage. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2007, among best assets Obama brought to the "rebranding" of America was "his face." The election of Obama and his friendly approach to the Muslim world would make the United States safer as well as more just.
No one believed this tale more fervently than Obama himself. His first official act was to direct the closing of Guantanamo Bay within one year and the elimination of harsh interrogation techniques. The "message we are sending around the world," he intoned, "is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle ... in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals." In Cairo a few months later, he declared, "a new beginning" of relations between America and the Muslim world.
Obama participated in erecting a Bush straw man -- a Bush who disdained and caricatured Muslims in general and committed war crimes in the name of national security. In fact, Bush had gone to great pains, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, to appear with imams and to stress that Islam was a "religion of peace."
Because Iraq had been Bush's war, as Obama saw it, he squandered the hard-won victory by failing to obtain an agreement that would have kept a stabilizing American force on the ground, electing instead to withdraw completely. And because Afghanistan was the war that Bush allegedly neglected, Obama sent 33,000 more troops (fewer than the generals requested) -- a surge that, unlike Bush's in Iraq -- failed, but not before causing 70 percent of the American deaths in that conflict.
Most of all, the Obama administration fled from the concept of a struggle against Islamic terrorism as if fighting jihadis (the smalls subset of Muslims who've declared war on us) were equivalent to warring against all Muslims. Orwellian language flowed. The war on terror became "overseas contingency operations." When Major Nidal Hassan gunned down his fellow soldiers shouting "Allahu Akbar!" the president warned against jumping to conclusions (a caution he failed to show himself in the Trayvon Martin and Henry Louis Gates cases). His administration later dubbed Hassan's attack "workplace violence" rather than jihadism or terrorism.