Monthly Archive for April, 2012

Obama vs. Romney vs. Bin Laden

This ad for President Obama touts his handling of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and questions Mitt Romney’s willingness and ability to do the same:

Suffice to say that the Romney campaign did not much enjoy this ad. Several commentators have weighed in, with some backing the Romney campaign’s claim that Obama is merely trying to distract from the dour economic news, and others saying there’s nothing wrong with a president touting a major foreign policy success. George W. Bush, after all, was not particular averse to using the memory of 9/11 to scare score some votes. By comparison that was a bizarre tactic, since 9/11 itself was as far from a foreign policy success as can be imagined, and at worst it was a major blunder. And it’s not as if the subsequent wars it spawned were masterful strokes of statecraft. At least Obama is reminding us of something unequivocally good he did, which would seem to be the prerogative of a president standing for reelection.

How about the implication that a President Romney wouldn’t have been up to the challenge? That is nasty politics right there. His supposedly damning quote: "It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."

But does anyone disagree with that statement? I very much doubt Obama himself disagrees with it. Now as fortune would have it we didn’t have to move heaven and earth to get bin Laden. But I think President Bush’s decision to downgrade the priority of catching him in the context of our overall national security strategy was the right call, as was Mitt Romney’s endorsement of that policy.

It seemed for a time, even years after 9/11, that al-Qaeda remained the central organizing force of our entire foreign policy posture; in resources, in attention bandwidth, and in our bilateral relationships abroad. This was unhealthy and a terrible misallocation of priorities and resources. A strategic pull-back from AQ-mania and a realignment to better reflect our proportional challenges in the world was very welcome.

Don’t misunderstand: the PoliticsInVivo household, not known for its nationalist outbursts, nonetheless poured a whiskey toast when the news of bin Laden’s downfall started trickling in one year ago.

But that doesn’t mean Bush/Romney were wrong regarding relative priorities. The intelligence gleaned from the SEAL operation seems to have revealed and confirmed what we already suspected: that AQ was a weakened, fragmented group sapped of vitality, skilled personnel, and materiel. And if we are indeed safer because of the bin Laden operation (and I think we are), have we dialed back the airport security ratchet, which after all was installed to counter and deter the very danger bin Laden exposed on 9/11? In this safer post-bin Laden world, has the DHS budget been slashed? Are we engaging in more, or fewer, drone attacks?

This isn’t to argue for or against any of these specific policy changes, but to show that there’d really be no substantive policy differences whether that SEAL raid happened or not. It really wouldn’t have been worth assigning lavish resources and attention to get one man. I don’t know how far the Obama campaign is going to take this issue as election season wears on, but there are plenty of legitimate accolades for them to claim here without dissembling or flirting with demogoguery.

Update: Conor Friedersdorf notes the other charge made in the ad–that Mitt Romney disapproved of striking al-Qaeda targets inside of Pakistan–is taken wildly out of context. The full quote shows Romney saying that a president merely should not announce such military intentions ahead of time, and, "[o]f course America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interest of America."