Barack Obama was certain that rendition and waterboarding and the prison at Guantanamo Bay were recruiting tools of the jihadis. We had sullied America's reputation in lands beyond, and he would heal the damage.
Our practices had run afoul of time-tested traditions and institutions, and in his stewardship, he promised, our values would again be a compass for our deeds abroad.
In hindsight, the great reckoning for Obama came at the end of the first year of his presidency. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian, a disciple of Awlaki, came close to bringing down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
It was farewell to "Kumbaya" foreign policy: The world was a menacing place.
Against the background of the stirring Obama oratory, and the euphoric claim that the president's personal biography was a bridge to the world of Islam, the young Nigerian could have snuffed out the promise of the Obama presidency.
From that close call, the president emerged a determined leader in the war on terrorism.
He had his trusted aide, John Brennan, in a windowless office in the White House, and Brennan knew the world of intelligence and terrorism. He knew the Arabian Peninsula, as he had served as an intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia - a country where secrets and things unacknowledged are the coin of the realm.
Together the president and the spook oversaw a stealth war, and the president became his own targeting officer.
Obama going over kill lists recalls President Lyndon Johnson's poring over the map of Khe Sanh in search of bombing targets in Vietnam; the marked difference is the anguish of LBJ and, by the telling, the serene confidence of Obama that this is a war of necessity and a just campaign.
The drone strikes were the choice of a president who had given up on winning "hearts and minds" in the North-West Frontier of Pakistan.
Secure in the knowledge that he can't be outflanked from the right by the Republicans, Obama served up a policy that was economical - and remote. Congress didn't intrude and, save for the purists at the American Civil Liberties Union, no powerful intellectual lobby was calling for accountability.
The passion had drained out of the progressives who had hounded Bush, Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby.
Brennan had to step aside once when he was put up to head the Central Intelligence Agency, as a man tainted with the Bush legacy. His confirmation is certain this time around.
There remains the discrepancy between an extensive campaign of drones and a passive foreign policy that maintains - the president's very words - that an era of war is ending.
Forgive those Syrians left at the mercy of their dictator's cruel war: It is hard to explain to them why those drones don't somehow find their way to Bashar al-Assad's bunker.
We do anti-terrorism. Wars of rescue are not an American specialty nowadays.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of "The Syrian Rebellion." His column is distributed by Bloomberg Views.