Would Mitt Romney have given the order to authorize the daring mission that ended in Osama bin Laden’s assassination?
It’s impossible to say, but that hasn’t stopped President Barack Obama’s campaign from stoking doubts that a President Romney, essentially, wouldn’t have had the guts to make that order.
“Thanks to President Obama, bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday in a campaign speech. “You have to ask yourself, if Gov. Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan – in reverse? “
Marking the one-year anniversary of the mission that successfully killed bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2011 terror attacks, has undoubtedly given the Obama campaign an opportunity to remind voters of one of the president’s biggest accomplishments on foreign policy and national security.
“He took the harder and more honorable path, and the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result,” former President Bill Clinton said in a web video released Friday by the Obama campaign – one that directly asks the question about what Romney would have done if he were in that position last year.
But some Republicans are crying foul. For starters, the Republican National Committee was eager to highlight the 2008 Obama campaign’s own complaint against then-rival Hillary Clinton, accusing her of trying to “invoke bin Laden to score political points” by depicting the infamous al-Qaida leader in a campaign ad.
“I think it's irresponsible and unfair,” said Brian Hook, a foreign policy adviser to both President George W. Bush and former White House hopeful Tim Pawlenty, said of the Obama campaign’s questioning of Romney. “What person running for commander in chief doesn't want to bring bin Laden to justice?”
“In my experience, every president will try to do the right thing,” said Charles Hill, a conservative foreign policy expert and lecturer at Yale University. “You can't say one person would do it and another person wouldn't; it depends on the operational plan.”
And Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, protested in a statement: "No one disputes that the President deserves credit for ordering the raid, but to politicize it in this way is the height of hypocrisy. The Obama campaign asks whether Mitt Romney would have made that decision. Of course they want to focus on this one tactical decision because the other decisions this president has made have harmed our national security."
By most press accounts, the decision to authorize the mission that killed bin Laden was fraught with difficulties; there was no “slam-dunk” guarantees that the risky strike would end with success. Biden himself has said that he had counseled the president against the Special Forces mission.
The Obama campaign’s effort to translate that decision into a political chit is two-fold. First, they’re looking to build up the president’s stature as a commander in chief, and their efforts are meant to cast Obama as a figure of fortitude in the face of Republican criticism that he’s too weak.
The other prong – and this is where the claim that Romney wouldn’t have acted comes into play – is intended to seize on the instances in which the former Massachusetts governor’s foreign policy positions have seemed muddled or, worse, inconsistent.
The crux of that argument stems from comments Romney made in 2007 when, in reference to bin Laden, Romney said “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
That comment, said former Gen. Wesley Clark, a onetime Democratic presidential candidate and surrogate for the Obama campaign, made it fair to question whether a Romney presidency would have ended in the same outcome of killing bin Laden.
Clark argued that Obama deserves credit not just for ordering the mission, but for initiating an overall shift in strategy that helped collect the actionable intelligence that allowed the president to make the call he did.
“It’s not quite a fair comparison to say Gov. Romney might have decided to go after him, too, if he had that information,” Clark said. “But that information is the result of thousands of man hours of effort at the exclusion of not focusing on other things. The decision was just one step of many that led to the takedown of Osama bin Laden.”
Rudy deLeon, a senior vice president of national security and international policy at Washington’s Center for American Progress, concurred.
“You had actionable intelligence, which is something the president doesn't always get. But in swinging the forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, you were able to swing with it the kind of surveillance that was able to get you actionable intelligence,” he said, referencing the surge in troops in Afghanistan that Obama had authorized.
“He basically took on his own party. That's not a sign of weakness or indifference,” deLeon added.
Hook cautioned, though, against overly politicizing the bin Laden mission, referencing the instance in which Obama said he was wary of appearing to “spike the football,” referring to the photos of a dead bin Laden.
“Didn't Obama say we shouldn't be spiking the ball in the end zone?” Hook asked. “Well, isn't this spiking the ball in the end zone?”