John Boehner's absurd charge about Obama's counterterrorism strategy.

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May 6 2010 7:15 PM

A No-Boehner

The minority leader's absurd charge about Obama's counterterrorism strategy.

Today House Minority Leader John Boehner issued a grave charge against the president in the wake of the Times Square bomb plot. He suggested it was merely luck that there had not been a major terrorist attack during the Obama administration. Obama lacks a "comprehensive strategy for war" against terrorists, he charged, and had no strategy for preventing future attacks.

You can make the case that President Obama's strategy for fighting terrorists is dumb, too cautious, or ineffective. But no one who wants to be taken seriously can claim Obama lacks a strategy. Boehner is either being sloppy with his language, slippery with the facts—or both—to score political points.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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The rap against Democrats used to be that they had a law-enforcement mentality when it came to fighting terrorists. The charge was often leveled against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, and Boehner is making it again here. It's a hard claim to support about Obama, who has spent a lot of time formulating and putting in place anti-terrorist policies and giving speeches devoted to the more efficient killing of terrorists.

Obama has approved nearly twice as many CIA airstrikes against targets in Pakistan during his first year in office as President Bush did in his final year, killing twice as many targets. Since taking office, Obama has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan. Their mission, as the president pointed out repeatedly in his West Point speech announcing the move, was to keep terrorists there from coming to kill Americans here. Even Sen. Jim DeMint, the conservative Republican critic of the president, says that Obama has been moving ahead in an "aggressive, sensible way in Afghanistan."

On Christmas Day, U.S. forces were engaged in a long-planned attack in Yemen, the country where the Christmas Day bomber was trained. Obama's strategy of reducing nuclear weapons and his nonproliferation policy are intended mainly to deprive terrorists of material for their attacks.

Rhetorically, Obama has also been focused on the issue. "I do not make this decision lightly," he said about his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. "I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat." But his most extraordinary global pitch for the use of military force to stop terrorists came in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now let's examine Boehner's complaint. When I asked for a list of policy proposals that would represent the kind of improvement Boehner was calling for, I received some examples: no importing of prisoners from Guantanamo, improving communication between different intelligence agencies, opposing the trial of terrorist suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on U.S. soil, not reading Miranda rights to terrorists like the Christmas Day bomber, and providing a comprehensive detention strategy.

These may be fine ideas, but they're limited—and they don't come close to matching the size of Boehner's complaint, which is about the full scope of the terrorist-fighting exercise. He talks about "international terrorist organizations" and the need to do more than "catching [terrorists] at the last moment." But four of those five items are about actions taken after the terrorists have been caught.

If Boehner's critique had been made during the Bush administration, it would not just have invited criticism on its specific points; it would have been held up as evidence that Boehner fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the war against the extremists.

In his critique, Boehner is not acting alone. He is parroting the same arguments put forward by Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. As a political matter, this seems sensible: Defining your opponent's approach to fighting terrorists by its least popular elements is a wise strategy. Moving Guantanamo prisoners to the United States is not popular. Nor is trying KSM in New York—a fact that Scott Brown exploited in his winning campaign for Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat. In fact, many Republicans believe that the lesson of the Brown victory is that national security, not health care, is a potent political issue against the Democrats.

Whether Obama's strategy against terrorists is a smart one is certainly a suitable subject for debate and conversation. But Boehner's charge in its present form doesn't deserve a hearing at the adults table. And Obama didn't give it one. At the time Boehner was making his remarks, Obama was in the Situation Room, attending one of his regular meetings with the secretary of defense, Gen. David Petraeus, and other national security advisers. They were discussing the strategy the minority leader says the president doesn't have.

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