EVERY September 11th America mourns the people al-Qaeda murdered in the atrocities of 2001. And every year the anniversary compels an assessment of how the “war on terror” is faring. After a year that saw a successful terrorist attack and two near-misses on American soil, it is hard to be upbeat. In November Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an American, killed 13 comrades in Fort Hood, Texas. On Christmas Day Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, failed to set off his bomb properly on a Detroit-bound passenger jet. And in May Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised American, left a car bomb in Times Square in New York.
If the emergence of home-grown Muslim terrorism has been bad enough, the failure of Barack Obama to engineer the transformation some expected from him in the wider world has been no less dispiriting. After the toxic impact of George Bush on Muslim opinion, many hoped that the advent of a kinder, gentler president whose middle name was Hussein would help America to draw the poison. Mr Obama himself seemed to think that this might be possible. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told the New York Times earlier this year that Mr Obama counted his Cairo speech to the Muslim world of June 2009 as one of the three most important things he had done to combat terrorism.
And yet Mr Obama’s programme of Muslim outreach is already faltering. The Pew Research Centre reported in June that the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in him had declined in a year from 42% to 33% in Egypt and from 13% to 8% in Pakistan. The reason is not hard to fathom. Whatever expectations the Cairo speech aroused in the Muslim world have yet to be fulfilled. Like Americans waiting for economic recovery, Muslim countries have been waiting for Mr Obama to match his words with deeds, and have so far been disappointed.
Under Mr Obama America no longer waterboards detainees, but that stopped on Mr Bush’s watch. Mr Obama promised to close Guantánamo, but so did Mr Bush—and it is still in operation. Mr Obama has withdrawn combat troops from Iraq, but sent more to Afghanistan and used drones to kill far more suspected terrorists in Pakistan. He said in Cairo that the plight of the Palestinians was intolerable, but the Palestinians are still stateless. To Muslim eyes, the formerly exotic Mr Obama has metamorphosed in office into just another American president, doing the things American presidents do to defend America’s interests.
In the meantime, however, a funny thing is happening on the home front. Where the Muslim world sees just another president, Mr Obama is somehow becoming more exotic to Americans. In August a Pew survey found that nearly one in five, and a third of conservative Republicans, think that he is a Muslim himself. Only about a third of all Americans say he is a Christian and 43% say they do not know what religion he practises. Moreover, both the number who think he is a Muslim and the number who do not think he is a Christian have risen sharply since March 2009.
Mr Obama is in fact a Christian, and the reasons for the public doubt are perplexing. But it is not hard to guess what the consequences might be. At his inauguration, Mr Obama said the choice between safety and ideals was “false”. That is not the case, as evidenced by his own decision to keep some especially dangerous suspected terrorists imprisoned indefinitely without trial. What may instead be true is that, to the dismay of liberals, the growing belief that Mr Obama is a Muslim will compel him to be ever more risk-averse when choosing between safety and civil liberty.
As the trauma of 9/11 recedes, so have the inhibitions that politicians once showed about exploiting the war against al-Qaeda for partisan advantage. When Mr Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his bomb last Christmas, for example, Mr Obama’s Republican foes were quick to accuse the vacationing president of flaccidity in face of danger. Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, said that Mr Obama was too busy trying to “transform America” to admit that it was at war. Republicans were especially furious that the bomber was read his rights and not simply incarcerated as an enemy combatant. The administration’s stymied plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind of 9/11, in a federal court instead of a military tribunal have likewise been greeted as evidence that the president is soft on terrorism.
Fascinatingly, Mr Bush faced no such criticism when doing exactly the same thing. In 2003 Richard Reid, the would-be “shoe-bomber”, was brought before a federal court. That may be because nobody could accuse Mr Bush of being a less than diligent warrior, or suspect him of praying to other than the Christian God. Mr Obama cannot fail to see that he of all presidents would face severe punishment at the slightest sign of weakness.
Ever-lonelier in the middle
Lately, a new front has opened in the war on terrorism—not Yemen or Somalia but back in lower Manhattan, where plans for the misnamed “ground-zero mosque” are being portrayed as a deliberate attempt by radical Muslims to demonstrate “triumphalism” at the site of the atrocity. As a previous column argued, this is a ludicrous misreading of a well-intentioned initiative, but the outcry against it has fed a stream of anti-Muslim sentiment, including plans by the pastor of a small church in Florida to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran.
To his credit, Mr Obama affirmed last month that in America Muslims had the same right to practise their religion as anyone else. But it was a muted statement, tempered a day later by an insistence that he was taking no position on the wisdom of the Manhattan mosque. In the war on terror, as in much else, this president’s pragmatic search for the middle way is in danger of satisfying nobody. It is turning into the recurring pattern, and may become the ultimate tragedy, of his presidency.
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