Bin Laden’s Scalp
It’s wrong to exploit military success for partisan advantage, unless you’re a Republican.
Photograph Alex Wong/Getty Images.
Shame on President Obama.
On Friday, the Obama campaign released a video taking credit for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Republicans denounced the video. The Republican National Committee issued a statement from Sen. John McCain calling it a “pathetic political act of self-congratulation”:
Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of Sept. 11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad. … Barack Obama is not only trying to score political points by invoking Osama Bin Laden, he is doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get reelected. No one disputes that the president deserves credit for ordering the raid, but to politicize it in this way is the height of hypocrisy.
The statement appeared on the RNC’s website rather than McCain’s, a clear sign that the RNC orchestrated it. Other Republicans joined in the outrage. Sunday morning on Meet the Press, former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, now an adviser to Mitt Romney, quoted the McCain statement and called Obama “one of the most divisive presidents in American history. He took something that was a unifying event for all Americans … and he’s managed to turn it into a divisive, partisan political attack.” When David Gregory pointed out that President Bush had used the same tactics in 2004, Gillespie replied that Obama, unlike Bush, crossed a line by suggesting “that Gov. Romney wouldn’t have done” what Obama did in the Bin Laden case. According to Gillespie, Republicans in 2004 simply depicted Bush as “a strong leader. You don’t see him saying, ‘and that guy [John Kerry] would have done something different.’ ”
Really? Let’s go back and look at the 2004 campaign. Let’s see what McCain, Gillespie, and other Bush surrogates said about Kerry, Iraq, and Saddam Hussein.
In December 2003, U.S. forces captured Saddam in Iraq. He had been hiding in a hole in the ground. Two months later, as Kerry began to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination, Gillespie, who was then the RNC chairman, embarked on a media tour to brand Kerry a wimp. Here’s Gillespie on CBS in February 2004: “If his policies were in place, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad; he'd still be in Kuwait.” And on CNN: “If his policies were in place, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad today, he'd still be in Kuwait, and we would not be waging an aggressive war against terror.” And on NBC: “If John Kerry had his policies in place today, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad, he'd be in Kuwait.” And on Fox: “If his policies were in place today, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad, he'd be in Kuwait.” And at a Republican dinner: “"If Sen. Kerry's policies were in place today, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad, he would still be in Kuwait.” And so on.
That summer, Gillespie turned the Republican National Convention into a martial victory parade. Speaker after speaker bragged that Bush had defeated, deposed, and captured Saddam—and that Kerry couldn’t be trusted to make such tough calls. “We have captured or killed hundreds of al-Qaida,” Vice President Dick Cheney crowed. “In Iraq, we dealt with a gathering threat and removed the regime of Saddam Hussein. … Tonight he sits in jail.” Cheney went on: “Time and again, Sen. Kerry has made the wrong call on national security. … America needs and America has a president we can count on to get it right.”
Introducing Bush at the convention, New York Gov. George Pataki reminded voters of the hole in which Saddam had been found: “President Bush understands we can't just wait for the next attack. We have to go after them, in their training camps, in their hiding places, in their spider holes.” The convention’s keynoter, Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., used Saddam’s capture to smear Kerry: “As a war protester, Kerry blamed our military. As a senator, he voted to weaken our military. … President Bush is committed to providing the kind of forces it takes to root out terrorists, no matter what spider hole they may hide in.”
McCain, the main speaker on the convention’s opening night, hailed Bush’s courage: “He ordered American forces to Afghanistan and took the fight to our enemies, and away from our shores, seriously injuring al-Qaida and destroying the regime that gave them safe haven. … President Bush made the difficult decision to liberate Iraq. … We need a leader with the experience to make the tough decisions and the resolve to stick with them.” Romney, in his speech, argued that Kerry lacked this toughness: “I don’t believe Sen. Kerry is the leader our country needs. … He’s campaigned against the war all year, but says he’d vote yes today. I don’t want presidential leadership that comes in 57 varieties.” And Bush, in his acceptance address, described the loneliness of making the call to take down Saddam: “I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office.”
When you look back at this record of boasts and taunts, it’s amusing to hear Gillespie, Romney, and McCain whine today about the political exploitation of military decisions. Their accusations of hypocrisy are hypocritical. Their cries of shamelessness are shameless. But Gillespie is right that Obama’s tactics don’t quite match Bush’s. At their 2004 convention, Republicans did two things Obama hasn’t mustered the chutzpah to try. First, they assigned a major speaking role to Tommy Franks, the general who had overseen the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Franks used his prestige as a war hero to recommend a vote for Bush over Kerry: “I choose George W. Bush because he is a leader we can depend on to make the tough decisions—and the right decisions.” Second, the convention featured a speech by Bernard Kerik, the police commissioner of New York City (who later pleaded guilty to tax fraud), in which he declared:
I think of the courage it took for our commander in chief to land on an airstrip in the dark of night, a world away, to be with our troops on Thanksgiving. He was there for them as he was for us right here in New York City, inspiring a nation as he stood on hallowed ground, supporting the first responders. This fight against terrorism takes decisiveness, not contradiction. … There are two candidates in this race, but only one fills those needs.
This tribute wasn’t for Bush’s decision to launch the war, or for capturing Saddam. It was for spending two hours serving and eating dinner with U.S. troops at the Baghdad airport. The visit took place six months after Bush, standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, had declared a successful end to major combat operations. Kudos to Bush for visiting the troops. But risking your life for a quickie morale booster—or making the risk look, in retrospect, bigger than it really was—isn’t one of those difficult calls we hire a president to make. It isn’t like, say, sending a team into Pakistan to kill the guy who hit us on 9/11, when you know that a Carter-style helicopter fiasco will sink your presidency.
Is Obama using his Bin Laden gamble, and its success, to score political points? You bet. Is he cynical to imply that Romney, in the same situation, wouldn’t have done the same thing? I think so. But, please, let’s not hear such complaints from the people who spent 4,000 American lives and $1 trillion to get the wrong guy—and then played the patriotism card all the way to re-election.
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.