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Here are two helpful reminders for apoplectic conservatives: Until Barack Obama shows up on a U.S. aircraft carrier in a flight suit and an over-sized cod piece, no GOP loyalist can criticize him for boasting about the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. And no Republican can claim that "other presidents and candidates like myself" would have ordered that high-risk mission in Pakistan. After all, in 2008 John McCain said he wouldn't. Mitt Romney said we shouldn't. And despite his tough-talk about getting Bin Laden "dead or alive," George W. Bush simply couldn't.
On Friday, the still bitter McCain declared, "Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad." For his part, the 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney scoffed that "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order." Unfortunately for the Republican propaganda machine, we know that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney would have supported the Special Forces strike deep in Pakistan. We know this, because they told us so.
(Click a link below for the details on each.)
- McCain Said He Wouldn't Go After Bin Laden in Pakistan.
- Romney Said We Shouldn't Go After Bin Laden in Pakistan.
- Bush Couldn't Get Bin Laden, Period.
Throughout 2007 and the first half of 2008, candidate McCain repeatedly pledged he would hunt down the Al Qaeda chieftain and "follow him to the gates of hell." For example, in May 2007, McCain described himself as the dog that'll hunt:
"We will do whatever is necessary. We will track him down. We will capture him. We will bring him to justice, and I will follow him to the gates of hell."
In January 2008, McCain reassured suspicious South Carolina voters as well, just in case they had missed his earlier promises on the point:
"My friends, I want to stand before you now and tell you that if I have to follow him to the gates of hell I will get Osama Bin Laden and I will bring him to justice. I will get him!"
And in perhaps his best performance of tough-talking, political pandering, McCain told workers at a small weapons factory in New Hampshire:
"I will follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell and I will shoot him with your products."
But when Senator Barack Obama explained he would pursue Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants across the Afghan border, John McCain said no.
On August 1, 2007, then 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."
In response, John McCain (the same John McCain who throughout 2003 and 2004 proclaimed "Nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America" and "Afghanistan, we don't read about anymore, because it's succeeded") mocked Obama.
For the rest of the campaign, Senator McCain insisted that unlike Senator Obama, he would not "take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights," as this exchange with CNN's Larry King revealed:
KING: If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?
MCCAIN: Larry, I'm not going to go there and here's why, because Pakistan is a sovereign nation. I think the Pakistanis would want bin Laden out of their hair and out of their country and it's causing great difficulties in Pakistan itself.
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.)
From the beginning, candidate Romney, like the GOP's eventual nominee John McCain, not only opposed but mocked Obama's approach. While McCain blasted Obama's hard line on Al Qaeda's safe havens in the tribal areas, Romney protested:
"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..."There is a war being waged by terrorists of different types and nature across the world," Romney said. "We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them."
That might seem like an incongruous statement coming from the same Mitt Romney who in November said of our "ally" Pakistan, "We need to help bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th for that matter." It's more comical still coming from the same Mitt Romney who told Chuck Todd of MSNBC that he now supports the very kind of operation to take out Osama Bin Laden he once opposed:
"I think in a setting like this one where Osama bin Laden was identified to be hiding in Pakistan, that it was entirely appropriate for this president to move in and to take him out," Romney replied, later adding that "In a similar circumstance, I think other presidents and other candidates, like myself, would do exactly the same thing."
(As it turns out, it wasn't just candidate Romney who got weak at the knees at the prospect of ordering unilateral U.S. strikes in Pakistan. In 2005, President Bush did as well, cancelling a special forces operation designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders.)
Of course, Romney's confusion about whether to respect or not respect Pakistani sovereignty may have something to do with his past reversals about whether or not killing Osama Bin Laden even mattered:
In May 2007, Romney alarmingly—and erroneously—equated Sunni and Shiite, friend and foe, the guilty and the innocent across the Islamic world.
"But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."
Even regarding that "one person, Osama Bin Laden," Romney struggled. After insisting in May 2007 that "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney reversed course just three days later and declared of Bin Laden, "He's going to pay, and he will die."
Last month, Karl Rove took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to criticize the Obama campaign's 17-minute video. Rove simply could not accept that President Obama had succeeded where his own boss had failed:
As for the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama did what virtually any commander in chief would have done in the same situation. Even President Bill Clinton says in the film "I hope that's the call I would have made." For this to be portrayed as the epic achievement of the first term tells you how bare the White House cupboards are.
Unfortunately for Rove, George W. Bush long ago made clear he would not have done what Commander-in-Chief Obama did in removing the Bin Laden threat.
Like John McCain, President Bush scoffed at candidate 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."
Of course, that's not what Obama said. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act," Obama explained, "We will."
And as his administration showed in 2005, Bush would not.
That year, it was his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who cancelled the U.S. special forces operation designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders. The story, following July 2006 revelations that the CIA had previously disbanded its Bin Laden unit, gives lie to one of the central tenets of the so-called Bush Doctrine: No safe havens for terrorists. As The New York Times reported in July 2007, Rumsfeld ran roughshod over then CIA Director Porter Goss, scuttling the mission at the last moment even as the U.S. forces were boarding planes for the assault:
But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.
Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.
Of course, 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 boogeyman 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 the Republican fabulists like Mitt Romney, John McCain and Karl Rove who still refuse to give credit where credit is due, their message to President Obama should be a simple one.
Not we coulda, shoulda, woulda, but "thank you."
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)