May 1, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In today’s print edition of the New York Times, Michael Barbaro reports on the exchange between presumptive GOP presidential nominee Willard Mitt Romney and President Obama over the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden one year ago. Barbaro and Michael D. Shear also wrote a “Caucus” post on the same topic for the online edition of the paper.
To provide some context, the controversy goes back some ways, and I’m not sure we can resolve who “started” it, but it might have been this “compliment” Romney paid Obama last year: As Ashley Parker of the Times reported on December 11, Romney told Fox “News’” Chris Wallace, “We’re delighted that [President Obama] gave the order to take out Osama bin Laden. Any president would have done that, but this one did, and that’s a good thing. I’m not going to say everything he’s done is wrong.”
In what might be regarded as a first response to Romney’s assertion, Vice President Biden made remarks in late January of this year describing how difficult President Obama’s decision was. According to Mary Bruce of ABC News, Biden volunteered this account at a Democratic Congressional retreat:
When the president asked his top advisers for their final opinion on the mission, ‘Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51. He got to me. He said, “Joe, what do you think?” And I said, “You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.” I said, “We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,”’ Biden recalled.
(Biden’s comments are consistent with remarks made by Republican Robert Gates, then Secretary of Defense and a holdover from the Bush administration. Gates told CBS’s “60 Minutes” shortly after the raid, “I’ve worked for a lot of these guys and this is one of the most courageous calls – decisions – that I think I’ve ever seen a president make. It was a very gutsy call.” He also said he had had “real reservations” about the intelligence that preceded the raid.)
As the first anniversary of the slaying of bin Laden approached, the Obama campaign has made an apparently concerted effort to highlight Obama’s gutsy call. Mark Landler of the New York Times reported that Vice President Biden told a New York University audience last week that
the story of Mr. Obama’s decision to order a raid on Bin Laden’s hide-out in Pakistan and speculating about whether Mr. Romney would have done the same. He quoted Mr. Romney as saying on the campaign trail in 2008, ‘It’s not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars, just to catch one person.’ ‘If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive,”’ Mr. Biden said. Had Mr. Romney been in office, he mused, that slogan could be reversed.
Jonathan Lemire of the New York Daily News reported Biden also said at NYU,
‘Does anybody doubt that if the mission failed it would have been the beginning of the end of [Obama’s] term in office? This guy has a backbone like a ramrod,’ Biden said of the President. ‘For real. For real.’ The Vice President dredged up Romney’s comment from four years ago that ‘it was not worth moving heaven and earth’ to find bin Laden — and compared it to his own boast: ‘We will follow the SOB to the gates of hell.’
At the same time, Scott Stearns of Voice of America reported that, in answer to a question from an audience member following a speech she gave at the U.S. Naval Academy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, ‘We did our very best to try to give the president our honest assessment. Ultimately it was his decision. Which I fully supported because I believed that we had to take the risk – and it was a risk – that that large house in Abbottabad was the haven for Bin Laden.’”
Last Friday, the Obama campaign released a video narrated by former President Bill Clinton who “describes the portentous decision and life-or-death risks that faced Mr. Obama and asks the question whether Mr. Romney would have done the same.” The video is here. Michael Shear of the New York Times characterized the Obama campaign video as a response to “a Web video released this week by American Crossroads, a Republican ‘super PAC,’ [which] mocks Mr. Obama’s penchant for mingling with the stars, including a recent visit with Jimmy Fallon on ‘Late Night.’” That video is here.
American Crossroads was organized by Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie. Now a Romney adviser, Gillespie appeared on “Meet the Press” Sunday to take umbrage over the Vice President’s remarks. Ken Vogel of Politico reported,
Gillespie was asked for his reaction to a video clip in which Vice President Joe Biden last week told a campaign audience ‘Thanks to President Obama, bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. You have to ask yourself: If Gov. Romney had been president, could you have used the same slogan in reverse?’
Gillespie responded: ‘This is one of the reasons President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history. He took something that was a unifying event for all Americans – an event that Gov. Romney congratulated him and the military and the intelligence analysts in our government for completing the mission in terms of killing Osama bin Laden – and he’s managed to turn it into a divisive partisan political attack.’
Gillespie rejected a comparison, made by host David Gregory, to an ad praising former President George W. Bush’s leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. ‘There is a little bit of a distinction here, David,’ Gillespie said. ‘It’s the extra iteration. It’s the attack that Gov. Romney wouldn’t have done,’ he added, asserting that any president would have acted similarly to Obama in approving the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Also appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Obama campaign advisor Robert Gibbs
hedged – but only slightly – when pushed by host David Gregory about whether ‘President Obama believes that a President Romney’ under the same conditions and with the same intelligence ‘wouldn’t take that shot.’
‘I don’t think it’s clear that he would,’ responded Gibbs…. ‘Again, he criticized Barack Obama a few years ago when Barack Obama said if we have actionable intelligence about a high-value target – and let’s be clear: nobody was bigger, nobody was a more high-value target than Osama bin Laden.’ … Gibbs also suggested that if Romney views have changed on the issue it means he should admit that his assessment was ‘wrong or he’s flip flopped on yet another issue.’
This was all very upsetting to New York Times columnist David Brooks. Today he writes,
Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Romney. The slam made Clinton look small, it made Obama look small, it turned a moment of genuine accomplishment into a political ploy, but it did follow the rules of gangland: At every second, attack; at every opportunity, drive a shiv between the ribs.
Brooks also criticized a Romney ad he characterized as “blatantly dishonest.” But he added a caveat: “the effectiveness of the ad was in showing Republican professionals and primary voters that Romney was going to play by gangland rules, that he was tough enough and dishonest enough to do so, too.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with Brooks. In a post titled “Former Republican Party chairman furious over reminders that Mitt Romney was wrong about bin Laden,” Jed Lewison of Daily Kos wrote yesterday:
Republicans milked the horror of 9/11 for everything it was worth, not just to win at the ballot box, but also to justify an entirely unrelated war…. And unlike Republicans, the Obama campaign isn’t turning this into an issue of patriotism, which actually does divide the country: they’ve raised this as a matter of policy.
As a coda, Lewison notes,
… maybe the best response to the howls of outrage from Republicans about ‘politicizing 9/11′ comes from Mitt Romney himself: ‘Rudy Giuliani will appear at an event with Mitt Romney on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the assault on Osama bin Laden, a campaign aide confirmed to CNN.’
Yeah, Mitt Romney is so desperately against politicizing 9/11 … that he’s going to mark the anniversary of bin Laden’s death by campaigning alongside Rudy 911iani.
Comes now Mitt Romney. Yesterday he said he would have ordered the killing of bin Laden. As Barbaro and Shear of the Times reported in their post yesterday,
Mitt Romney said on Monday that ‘even Jimmy Carter’ would have given the order to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan a year ago, dismissing pointed questions by President Obama’s re-election campaign about whether Mr. Romney would have issued the same command the president did. Asked by reporters after a rally here whether he would have given the same military order as President Obama, Mr. Romney replied, ‘Of course, of course,’ before taking a jab at Mr. Obama and Mr. Carter….
The reporters explain,
By referring to Mr. Carter, the Romney campaign is tying President Obama to a previous Democratic president considered by many to be weak on national security issues. But the comparison is somewhat flawed, given that while the signature military raid Mr. Carter ordered – to rescue United States Embassy hostages in Tehran in 1980 – was a failure, the raid Mr. Obama ordered against Bin Laden was a success.
Jim Fallows of The Atlantic, who was a speechwriter for President Carter, adds more about Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages:
Deciding to go ahead with that raid was a close call. Carter’s own Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, had opposed the raid and handed in his resignation even before the results were known. And it was a daring call – a choice in favor of a risky possible solution to a festering problem, knowing that if it went wrong there would be bad consequences all around, including for Carter himself. So if you say ‘even Jimmy Carter’ to mean ‘even a wimp,’ as Romney clearly did, you’re showing that you don’t know the first thing about the choice he really made….
Precisely because of the consequences of Carter’s failure, Obama was the more daring in making his go/no-go decision…. As a college student, Obama had seen a marginally popular Democratic president come to ruin because he approved a helicopter-based secret mission into hostile Middle Eastern terrain. Obama went ahead with a helicopter-based secret mission into nominally ‘allied’ territory….
Then, as Barbaro reported in his print piece for the Times, President Obama weighed in:
‘I assume that people meant what they said when they said it,’ Mr. Obama said during a news conference on Monday with the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, at the White House. ‘I said I’d go after Bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they’d do something else, then I’d let them go ahead and explain it.’
Videos of yesterday’s remarks by Romney and Obama are here. It’s worth watching Romney laugh at his own “joke” about President Carter.
So who is right? Obama or Romney? To get at this we’ll have to go back even further than Romney’s remark late last year that “Any president would have done that.” We’ll have to go back to the 2008 presidential campaign when both Romney and Obama were candidates for their parties’ nominations. Barbaro supplies some of that context:
Referring to the hunt for the terrorist mastermind in 2007, Mr. Romney said, ‘It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.’ A few days later, though, Mr. Romney said of Bin Laden, ‘he’s going to pay and he will die.’ After the raid, Mr. Romney praised the troops in the operation and Mr. Obama for his actions.
In the first 2007 interview Barbaro cites, “Romney also said the country would be safer by only ‘a small percentage’ and would see ‘a very insignificant increase in safety’ if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught because another terrorist would rise to power.”
But there’s more. When I look over Willard’s statements, inconsistent though they are, the preponderance of the evidence is that either (1) Romney would not have made the call to conduct the helicopter raid or (2) he cannot possible know if he would have made that call.
First, in 2007 or 2008 (reports vary), Romney said,
Well, if we want somebody who has a lot of experience in foreign policy, we can simply go to the State Department and pluck out one of the tens of thousands of people who work there. They, of course, have been doing foreign policy all their careers. But that’s not how we choose a president. A president is not a foreign policy expert.
Bear in mind that, according to Vice President Biden, both the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense (a Republican) were hesitant about the plan to go in by helicopter, and Biden himself opposed it. In other words, Obama’s top advisors said, “Don’t do it.”
In August 2007 Steve Holland of Reuters reported that,
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized Democrat Barack Obama on Friday for vowing to strike al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary as the Obama camp issued a strident defense of his plan. ‘I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours… I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort.’
Throw into the mix Romney’s comments suggesting catching bin Laden was not cost-effective – “it’s not worth … billions of dollars” and his belief that catching bin Laden would do little to enhance national security. And what you get is Would-Be President Romney, opposed to taking military action in Pakistan, opposed to spending billions going after bin Laden, believing bin Laden was not a threat to U.S. security, but not being a foreign policy expert, taking the advice of experienced foreign policy advisors. That’s a no-go. Even assuming that Would-Be President Romney had different advisors, it is impossible to know what those unknown others would have advised. So at best, candidate Romney cannot possible know how he would have acted because he cannot know what unnamed advisors would have told him to do. “Of course, of course”? Definitely not.
I’m not criticizing the Times reporting here. (As for David Brooks’ opinion, you be the judge.) Not every article can lay out the whole story. But there is more to the story than appears in the New York Times. And the “more” strongly suggests that Romney has flip-flopped again, and that this time he was strikingly flip about his flip-flop. Moreover, his shallow bravado and willingness to laugh about serious foreign policy matters – matters he said he would leave to any one of “tens of thousands” of State Department experts to decide – is pretty damning evidence that he does not have the gravitas to lead this nation on the world stage.
Update: today, appearing on CBS’s “This Morning, ” Romney now says that not just any president but “Any thinking American would have ordered exactly the same thing” President Obama did. I don’t know whether Romney is genuinely uninformed or if he is just misrepresenting reported facts. Apparently there were plenty of “thinking Americans” — including most of Obama’s national security team — who would not have ordered exactly the same thing.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com