Mitt Romney, Not Quite As Tough As Jimmy Carter

Now that we're fighting over just how great it was that Barack Obama gave the order for Seal Team 6 to go in and get Osama Bin Laden, Mitt Romney has given what is probably the most politically wise answer to the question of whether he would have ordered the raid, "Of course." But then he added, "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order." As James Fallows correctly notes, on the substance of the question, Romney's remark is incredibly stupid:

Jimmy Carter did indeed make a gutsy go/no-go call. It turned out to be a tactical, strategic, and political disaster. You can read the blow-by-blow in Mark Bowden's retrospective of "The Desert One Debacle." With another helicopter, the mission to rescue U.S. diplomats then captive in Teheran might well have succeeded -- and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been re-elected. Full discussion another time, but I think he's right. (Even with the fiasco, and a miserable "stagflation" economy, the 1980 presidential race was very close until the very end.)

But here's the main point about Carter. 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.

I'd also note that the order that Carter gave was substantially riskier than the one Obama gave. Rescuing 52 civilian hostages from where they were being held in downtown Tehran would have been much, much harder than killing one man in a house in Abbottabad, even if the helicopters hadn't crashed in that sandstorm in the desert. As bad as it would have been if things had gone wrong in Pakistan, the potential for disaster involved in the Iran operation—like the hostages being killed, or being executed after a failed raid—was even higher.

Furthermore, Romney wants to make it seem like Obama's decision was a no-brainer, but it wasn't. The evidence that Bin Laden was in fact in that compound was persuasive, but not iron-clad, which is why some very senior advisers argued against the commando raid. The safer route would have been to just keep the compound under surveillance, or drop a bomb on it. Ordering the raid raised the risk of a disaster considerably. And indeed, that almost happened, when one of the helicopters crashed in the compound and had to be destroyed by the Seals.

Maybe Romney would have made the same decision Obama made, and maybe he wouldn't have. We don't know. But if Romney is trying to convince us he's more of a badass than Jimmy Carter, he's got a ways to go.

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