With the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s eradication from the mortal sphere comes a swirl of political quarreling over President Obama’s spiking of the football. The other day, Obama chided Mitt Romney, in his typically peevish and unsubtle fashion, for opposing the policy he eventually pursued of unilateral action during the 2008 campaign:
“I assume that people meant what they said when they said it. That’s been at least my practice,” he said. “I said that I would go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him and I did. if there are others who said one thing and now suggest they would do something else, I’d go ahead and let them explain.”
But Romney’s response – a line about the fact that the decision to take out Osama bin Laden unilaterally was so obvious, of course he would’ve done it, even Jimmy Carter would’ve done it – strikes me as wrong-headed. So too do attempts by those on the right, such as by Ben Shapiro here, or John Bolton here, to argue that it wasn’t a “gutsy call” on the part of the president at all. I think this is inaccurate argument to advance, and I think it does no political service to the right to diminish Obama’s role in the OBL raid. In fact, I’d argue that Obama is accomplishing that himself. But let’s come back to that point.
First, for Shapiro: there are strategic, operational, and tactical levels of decision-making in times of war. Telling the commander of SOCOM to lead an operation, and him telling a SEAL commander to lead at a tactical level, is not passing the buck in any way, shape, or form from the strategic decision President Obama made. Even Ed Morrissey is skeptical. Those on the right need to realize that their best response to questions on this is simply saying they’re proud of the men and women who accomplished this aim, and move on before getting into disputes about the chain of command.
Second, for Bolton. The former U.N. ambassador’s continued revisionism regarding Osama bin Laden only makes him seem smaller. He says:
“I understand the Obama administration is trying to make the argument that foreign policy is a strength of theirs, using the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the way I would look at it is this: Osama bin Laden was killed while Obama was president–he wasn’t killed because Obama was president.”
Well, look at it this way: thanks to our two party system, there were only two people who could possibly be president “while” Osama bin Laden was killed. President Obama’s opponent explicitly opposed the method used to kill him throughout the 2008 campaign — a unilateral attack within a sovereign nation and a purported ally. When asked this specific question during their 2008 debate, McCain said that he’d work with the Pakistanis, not go directly in to kill bin Laden unilaterally. From the videotape:
QUESTIONER: “Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al-Qaida terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies, like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?”
OBAMA: …I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can’t coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars, and then he’s making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants. What I have said is we’re going encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our non-military aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants.
And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out.
MCCAIN: You know, my hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly – talk softly, but carry a big stick. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly. In fact, he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable. You know, if you are a country and you’re trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion. When you announce that you’re going to launch an attack into another country, it’s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us… Now, our relations with Pakistan are critical, because the border areas are being used as safe havens by the Taliban and Al Qaida and other extremist organizations, and we have to get their support…. We need to help the Pakistani government go into Waziristan, where I visited, a very rough country, and – and get the support of the people, and get them to work with us and turn against the cruel Taliban and others. And by working and coordinating our efforts together, not threatening to attack them, but working with them, and where necessary use force, but talk softly, but carry a big stick.
Obama rebutted McCain by saying that wasn’t what he was suggesting at all:
OBAMA: I want to be very clear about what I said. Nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan. Sen. McCain continues to repeat this. What I said was the same thing that the audience here today heard me say, which is, if Pakistan is unable or unwilling to hunt down bin Laden and take him out, then we should. Now, that I think has to be our policy, because they are threatening to kill more Americans.
Now some might say this was more about McCain saying telegraphing the punch was unwise. But he made no such critique in other situations, instead demagoguing: “Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan?” More McCain: “Pakistan is a sovereign nation… [they] want Bin Laden out of their hair and out of their country.” He criticized the lone fellow Republican candidate who took the same position as Obama. And when Sarah Palin went rogue and suggested she agreed with Obama’s policy that we should violate Pakistani borders if they didn’t hunt terrorists there at our behest, McCain quickly shut her down and suggested it was just idle talk.
This was not just a difference of saying what you were going to do, telegraphing a punch. It was a fundamental policy difference of strategic importance: whether we should act unilaterally to take out bin Laden, or whether cooperation with the Pakistanis was necessary or advisable. Given our numerous problems with intel leaks through the ISI and the unreliability of Pakistan’s Pervaiz Musharraf, it was not a small item of debate, but a very meaningful one. McCain gave us plenty of evidence he supported the latter view, which in retrospect looks as brazenly naïve as it always was, particularly considering where bin Laden was ultimately found.
Back to Bolton: saying Osama bin Laden was killed “while” Barack Obama was president ignores the fact that the very policy difference between the two men directly impacted how and why bin Laden was killed. (My own opinion is that when someone implements a policy that was the opposite of his opponents’, and the policy succeeds, you credit him.) Unless, of course, Bolton would have us believe McCain was lying all along, or would have changed his mind when confronted with facts as president (McCain, of course, being known as a man who is not at all stubborn and changes his mind with ease). And remember that McCain also opposed the exact same interrogation methods and facilities Obama did… methods and facilities that yes, despite the left’s best efforts to rebut the charge, led to bin Laden’s death.
Now to Romney. I think his error here was the smallest of the bunch, but he still shouldn’t have given the press the Carter-namecheck answer that ordering the strike was obvious. It seems, to a smaller degree than Bolton, to make the “gutsy call” into an obvious move. It wasn’t, and suggesting otherwise is historical revisionism. There are so many possible outcomes which could’ve hurt the U.S. effort, turning into an embarrassing international incident, that a cooperative move with the Pakistanis or a hands-off drone strike both seemed like more pragmatic, responsible decisions to many in Washington’s policy elite, and even some in his own administration. And that ignores Romney’s own weakness on this point, which provides the press another opportunity to bash him.
If those on the right would just leave well enough alone, I believe Obama would have done, and in fact is doing, his best to make himself seem smaller on the issue. He can’t help but repeatedly spike the football concerning bin Laden’s death, and he is going to keep on doing it this whole campaign. These repeated invocations about how important he was to the mission just make him seem egotistical and self-aggrandizing, lecturing us for not giving him enough credit. It is unbecoming and unpresidential of him to order the historians how to frame history – Obama, not content to be his own messiah, seems to forever be trying to write his own Bible as well – and such a performance would play poorly with independent voters, who eventually would tire of him acting like he shot the bullet through bin Laden’s skull himself.
Unfortunately, by disputing this so loudly and so publicly, the right takes the focus off of the economy or unemployment and makes the election talk focus on how much credit Obama should get for ridding the world of one of its most evil men. This is not, in my opinion, a “winning strategy.”
So those on the right should let Obama spike the football again and again like a petulant child. He won’t have the restraint to refrain from doing it so often that it grates. Instead, the right should realize that their best response to questions on this is simply saying: “I’m so proud of our men and women in uniform who eradicated Osama bin Laden from the face of the earth… and I’m glad that President Obama came around to our position that information gathered through enhanced interrogation can help us destroy our enemies.” Simple, classy, accurate, and then move on to talking about things people will actually vote about.