Announcing the U.S. operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, President Obama reminded Americans and the world, "Over the years, I've repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was." But when candidate Barack Obama declared in 2007 "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," he was blasted by Republicans and their amen corner in the media. Now with Obama's campaign promise kept, an apology is in order.
On August 1, 2007, Senator Barack Obama delivered a major speech on foreign policy. In addition to pledging to unilaterally launch strikes against Bin Laden and other high-value targets in Pakistan, Obama promised he would ramp up the U.S. effort in the under-resourced effort across the border in Afghanistan. In July 2008, Obama explained:
"The greatest threat to that security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan. We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as President, I won't. We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."
Then in an October 2008 presidential debate with John McCain, Obama declared simply:
"We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."
And at every step of the way, Republican leaders and conservative commentators mocked him for it.
In February 2008, on the same day the Washington Post reported on the Bush administration's accelerated use of drones to target terrorist targets within Pakistan, John McCain blasted Obama's hard line on AL Qaeda's safe havens:
"Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?"
(As Media Matters noted, USA Today dutifully reported that McCain was "ridiculing comments Obama has made" without adding the correction that Obama had said no such thing about "invading" Pakistan.)
For his part, John McCain in July 2008 suggested that his record on Iraq and expertise on the geography of the Iraq-Pakistan border region would allow him to succeed where George W. Bush failed in capturing the Al Qaeda chieftain:
"I'm not going to telegraph a lot of the things that I'm going to do because then it might compromise our ability to do so. But, look, I know the area, I have been there, I know wars, I know how to win wars, and I know how to improve our capabilities so that we will capture Osama bin Laden -- or put it this way, bring him to justice...We will do it, I know how to do it."
McCain repeated his boast during that same October presidential debate:
"I know how to get bin Laden... but I'm not going to telegraph it."
(It's worth remembering how John McCain planned to get Bin Laden. McCain repeatedly declared he would follow Bin Laden "to the gates of hell." And as he told an audience at a small weapons factory in New Hampshire in October 2007, ""I will follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell and I will shoot him with your products.")
It is also worth remembering how candidate Obama's aggressive posture towards eradicating the safe havens in Pakistan came to become the policy of the United States even before President Obama took the oath of office. In 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called off a special forces operation in Pakistan designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders." But even as White House press secretary Tony Snow was claiming in early 2008 "We think that our approach to Pakistan is not only one that respects the sovereignty of Pakistan, but also is designed so that we are working in cooperation," his boss was ordering unilateral drone strikes there.
As for President Bush himself, he like John McCain scoffed at Barack Obama's policy towards Pakistan and the Al Qaeda safe havens there. Asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News in February 2008 if "voters know enough about him," Bush replied:
"I certainly don't know what he believes in. The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was he's going to attack Pakistan."
Ironically, for George W. Bush the threat posed by Bin Laden was always directly proportional to the threat to the President's political standing.
Trying to fight back the growing public outcry over his illegal domestic wiretapping program in January 2006, President Bush used the Bin Laden bogeyman during remarks at the National Security Agency:
"All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously. When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it. I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously."
Bush, of course, did not take Bin Laden so seriously four years earlier. Questioned about his silence regarding Bin Laden in the months following the failure to capture the Al Qaeda chieftain in Tora Bora, a nonchalant Bush on March 13, 2002 downplayed his significance:
"So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you...I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
Bush may have been embarrassed by his failure to capture Bin Laden in 2002, but by the fall of 2004, he faced the prospect of American voters who seemed to recall the murder of 3,000 of their countrymen. In the third presidential debate with John Kerry, a childlike Bush on October 13, 2004 tried for a "do over" of his statement two and a half years earlier:
"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."
Which brings us full circle. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush used the specter of Osama Bin Laden to rally what had been a faltering presidency. In a show of frontier bravado, Bush talked tough about Bin Laden just days after the 9/11 attacks:
"There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"
Well, Osama Bin Laden is dead now, thanks to the incredible skill and bravery of the American military personnel who executed a daring operation into Pakistan and to the President who had the courage to order it. As for Barack Obama's Republican opponents still reticent about giving credit where credit is due, their message to him should be a simple one.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)