The Manhattan skyline, September 2007
Gary Hershorn / Reuters

When it comes to political orientation, worldview, life experience, and temperament, the past three presidents of the United States could hardly be more different. Yet each ended up devoting much of his tenure to the same goal: countering terrorism.

Upon entering office, President George W. Bush initially downplayed the terrorist threat, casting aside warnings from the outgoing administration about al Qaeda plots. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, his presidency came to be defined by what his administration termed “the global war on terrorism,” an undertaking that involved the torture of detainees, the incarceration of suspects in “black sites” and at a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, and prolonged and costly military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Barack Obama’s political rise was fueled by his early opposition to Bush’s excesses. He was clear-eyed about the nature of the terrorist

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  • ROBERT MALLEY is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. During the Obama administration, he served as Special Assistant to the President, White House Middle East Coordinator, and Senior Adviser on countering the Islamic State. 
  • JON FINER served as Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration.
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