The laying of a wreath at the American embassy in Dar es Salaam Tuesday symbolized a big theme of both the Barack Obama and George W Bush administrations: The war against al Qaeda.
President Obama was warmly greeted by throngs in Tanzania, but his message of trade was overshadowed by other events around the world.
The two men met in Tanzania to to honor the memories of the 224 people – 12 of them Americans – killed by al Qaeda truck bombs at that embassy and the one in Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 7, 1998.
Osama bin Laden’s embassy attacks were precursors of 9/11; signals, unmistakable in retrospect, that bin Laden and his allies had launched a new kind of war.
As bin Laden said in an interview with ABC News a few months before the embassy bombings, “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets in this fatwa.”
He added, “If the present injustice continues … it will inevitably move the battle to American soil.” He was true to his word – under international law, the embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi which his bombers struck were U.S. soil.
But even with bin Laden killed by Navy Seals in 2011, the war has evolved in ways few Americans might have foreseen back in 1998, or even right after the terror attacks in 2001.
During his first campaign for president in 2008, Obama was harshly critical of Bush’s policies. Obama’s fervent supporters viewed him as the antithesis of Bush.
Even as recently as late May in his speech at the National Defense University, without identifying Bush by name, Obama criticized Bush and his aides, whom he said had “compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”
For both friends and foes Bush’s handling of all that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, will be the major part of his legacy, a legacy about which Bush said in an interview with CNN Monday he wasn’t worried: “history will judge the decisions that I made. And I won't be around because it's going to take a while for the objective historians to show up.”
But in dealing with al Qaeda, Obama hasn’t turned out to be exactly what his supporters expected in 2008.
Obama expanded Bush’s strategy of using unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
There’s continuity with President Bill Clinton, too. Clinton tried to kill bin Laden after the 1998 embassy attacks with a cruise missile strike in Afghanistan – not so different from a drone strike.
Another unexpected turn in the war against al Qaeda had been the revelation of a far-reaching program of telecommunications data collection by the National Security Agency. Leaks about that program from fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden are now one of Obama’s worst political and national security headaches.
Bush – who has been circumspect and has said almost nothing about terrorism since leaving office – has not only refrained from criticizing his successor, but on Monday essentially endorsed Obama’s handling of the NSA/ Snowden mess.
“I know he (Snowden) damaged the country. The Obama administration will deal with it,” the former president said.
Asked about the NSA surveillance, Bush said, “I put the program in place to protect the country and one of the certainties is civil liberties were guaranteed.”
He added, “I think there needs to be a balance (between individual liberty and national security) and as the president (Obama) described, there is a proper balance.”
Obama, he said magnanimously, has “got plenty on his agenda and it's difficult. A former president doesn't need to make it harder” by criticizing him.
It made for a striking contrast with Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney who last month appeared on Fox News to assail Obama as too quick to proclaim a winding down of the war against al Qaeda.
In his National Defense University speech, Obama said that “this war, like all wars, must end,” but the war which included the 1998 embassy bombings will likely continue after Obama leaves the White House.
Evidence of that: The Obama administration last month identified 46 Yemenis, Libyans, Saudis and others now held at Guantanamo whom it called “indefinite detainees” who cannot be tried in a court of law and who are too dangerous to release.
Meanwhile, demonstrating how events in the war on terror can have consequences years after the fact, the 1998 embassy bombings may have helped cost Susan Rice, Obama’s U.N. ambassador – now national security advisor – the job of secretary of state.
When Rice’s name was floated as a nominee for secretary of state last fall, Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, took issue with Rice’s role in protecting the east Africa embassies when she served in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Collins said she was “very troubled by the fact that we seem not to have learned from the 1998 bombings … . What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack in many ways echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998, when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department. In both cases the ambassadors begged for additional security.”
But Collins said, as with the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, those requests were turned down by the State Department.
Collins said that Rice told her “she would have to refresh her memory” of the 1998 events and that she was not directly involved in turning down the request for security prior to the bombings.
“I can't imagine not remembering in searing detail such a horrific attack on our embassy,” Collins retorted.
This story was originally published on Tue Jul 2, 2013 4:13 AM EDT