The Republicans have glommed on to a neat rhetorical trick: When Barack Obama does something indisputably admirable or effective, simply pretend that he had nothing to do with it.
Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This ploy was first trotted out in the aftermath of Moamar Qaddafi’s downfall in Libya, when Obama’s former presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, gave all the credit to the French.
Now Mitt Romney, this year’s presumptive GOP nominee, is waving off Obama’s role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden—the president’s signal national-security achievement—by chortling that “any thinking American would have ordered the exact same thing,” even Jimmy Carter.
Two new investigative reports—a book by Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, and an article by Graham Allison in the May 7 issue of Time—thoroughly rebut that notion.
Far from the no-brainer that Romney depicts, the secret, high-level discussions leading up to the raid were fraught with intense debate and uncertainty—and Obama’s final decisions, on both whether and how to attack, went against some of his top advisers’ recommendations.
Vice President Joe Biden revealed a few months ago that he had urged Obama not to mount the assault. Bergen and Allison report that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joined him in the dissent—and they explain why.
In the weeks leading up to the decision, a group of counterterrorism officials, after conducting a “red-team” exercise of what could go wrong in such an attack, estimated that there was only a 40 percent chance Osama Bin Laden was actually in the compound. The CIA put the odds at 60 percent. Bergen quotes Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, as telling the president that “the circumstantial case of Iraq having WMD was actually stronger than the circumstantial case that bin Laden is living in the Abbottabad compound.”
Faced with these uncertainties, a president could have been forgiven for holding back. Certainly, a decision to go ahead was no “slam dunk.” More to the point, if Obama had given the order, and it turned out that Bin Laden wasn’t there, it is an absolute sure thing that, one year later, Romney and his allies would still be lampooning Obama for his foolhardy recklessness and accusing him of letting the world’s No. 1 terrorist slip through our fingers, perhaps this time for good.
Once Obama decided to attack, an equally weighty debate took place over how to go about it. Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and widely known at the time as “Obama’s favorite general”), recommended dropping a few dozen 2,000-pound bombs from a B-2 bomber. Others favored going in with missile-carrying drones.
Others, however, advised sending in SEAL Team Six, noting that an aerial attack might kill lots of civilians—perhaps even some in neighboring houses—and, in any case, would preclude certain knowledge that the strike had actually killed Bin Laden. Obama sided with the advocates of the far riskier raid.
Gates, still skeptical of the whole business, had been CIA director Stansfield Turner’s executive assistant back in 1979, when President Carter ordered a raid to rescue American hostages in Iran—then watched the operation go down in flames, along with his presidency, when the Delta Force’s helicopter crashed.
Struck by Gates’ concerns, Obama ordered Adm. William McRaven, the special-operations commander organizing the raid, to throw in two additional helicopters for backup. It was a good thing he did, since one of the assault choppers crashed outside the compound.
Romney has kept up a barrage of attacks on Obama’s national-security record—which is puzzling, to say the least, since there are no politically palatable routes to criticizing the president on this score, except from the left, which is hardly an angle that Romney or any other Republican (except Ron Paul) would traverse.
On Afghanistan, Romney has lambasted Obama for announcing his troop-withdrawal schedule (a legitimate criticism), but he’s also expressed support for NATO’s announcement to pull out all combat troops by 2014 (which renders his first point moot). Let’s see if he keeps up this assault after Obama’s surprise May Day visit to Kabul, where he and Afghan president Hamid Karzai are scheduled to sign a “strategic partnership” accord, which, for better or worse, will keep the United States committed to the country’s security well beyond the NATO deadline.
On Iran, Romney calls for a different policy without specifying what that might be. Given Obama’s multiple rounds of sanctions and likely cybersabotage, which may be having an effect, it is hard to imagine what Romney might do differently, except go to war, a step that few Americans would welcome.
In an attempt to trash the New START arms-reduction treaty, which Obama signed with Russia, Romney wrote (or at least signed) the most misleading and ignorant article on the subject that I’ve read in more than 35 years of following the nuclear debate.
On North Korea, Romney appears not even to want to try negotiating a solution. On China, he seems to be pushing for a trade war. On Russia, which he has called America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, he appears to think the Cold War is still raging.
Romney’s position—or, more accurate, his pose—on these issues is so preposterous, one can only surmise that he can’t be serious. More likely, he and his proxies in the right-wing press are adopting Karl Rove’s strategy of attacking the opponent’s strengths. In the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry’s war-hero status posed a threat against George W. Bush, so Rove and the Swift Boaters painted Kerry as a war coward; Kerry and his team were so flummoxed, they didn’t know how to respond. Now Mitt Romney, who has no foreign-policy experience whatever, is painting Obama as the dangerous naif.
There are two big differences this time out. First, Obama’s political operators seem more adept at dousing these sparklers than were Kerry’s. Second, like Bush in 2004, Obama is the incumbent in this election; he can demonstrate experience and competence in foreign affairs as a matter of course, on a daily basis; hence his trip to Kabul.
Republicans are no doubt pining for a second dip in the economy, because going after Obama on foreign and military affairs is a dead-end route.