By All Means, Politicize the Bin Laden Killing

Imagine that you called a carpenter to come repair your deck, and after looking at the rotted timbers and split rails, he said, "Well, I can fix this deck. But the one thing I'm not going to do is come over here and engage in a bunch of carpentry. That would be wrong."

You'd probably suspect that the carpenter was insane. Yet politicians and their campaign advisers–people for whom politics is a profession no less than carpentry is the carpenter's profession–are constantly complaining that their opponents are engaged in "politics," or are committing the horrible sin of "politicizing" something that shouldn't be political.

So it was when Barack Obama's re-election campaign took the opportunity of the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden to remind voters who was president when it happened, in the form of an ad retelling the story and questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same decision as Obama did were he in the Oval Office at the time. The condemnations came from the expected places, and even one or two unexpected places (Arianna Huffington called the ad "one of the most despicable things you can do"). No one said that the Obama campaign was lying about anything, or raising an issue that ought to be irrelevant to a presidential campaign. The only problem seemed to be that an incumbent president was taking political advantage of the purest moment of triumph in his first term to argue that the voters ought to grant him a second. Shocking. Surely Republicans would never stoop so low.

Romney protested that "of course" he would have ordered the raid that killed Bin Laden, but the truth is we don't really know whether he would have. And that's precisely why we ought to have these discussions. There are things about a presidency we can predict well, and things we can't. For instance, when Barack Obama ran for president, he said he wanted a comprehensive health care reform, and when he took office, he pursued it in largely (but not exactly) the same form he had advocated during the campaign. Mitt Romney says he wants to cut taxes, and we can be pretty sure if he wins office, he'll try to cut taxes. Presidents keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make as candidates, so the best way to predict what they'll do in office is to look at what they propose during the campaign.

But foreign policy, particularly in matters of war, is very different. Legislation, where you follow a precise (if often maddening) course from bill to law, is all but irrelevant. You have to respond to events that can't be foreseen, involving people and forces from other nations that are often difficult to understand and even harder to predict. So when we're trying to determine what kind of actions a potential president would or wouldn't take in foreign policy, we have to piece together a picture from an inconclusive jumble of statements, experiences, and character traits. Each might give us some hint of how the next president will deal with changing and dangerous situations throughout the world, but no combination will make us certain we know what this candidate would do.

And when it comes to crisis situations like the Bin Laden raid, we have even less to go on. Mitt Romney has been a corporate leader and a governor, but he's never been in a situation where he had a short amount of time to make a decision that could potentially result in the deaths of many people and a national humiliation, or an extraordinary and lasting triumph. Barack Obama had never been in that situation before becoming president either. The last president who had that kind of experience before coming to the White House was Dwight Eisenhower.

At the moment, we're arguing about something that has already happened, not something that might happen in the future, which if nothing else takes fear out of the equation (to a degree, at least). That's in stark contrast to 2004, when Republicans literally argued that if John Kerry were elected, terrorists would kill us. ("It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, " said Dick Cheney on the campaign trail, "because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.") But that also means that the discussion we have about the Bin Laden killing is a few steps removed from whatever crisis the president will face in 2013 or 2014, and how he'll approach the life-or-death decision he has to make.

And there will be such a crisis; we just don't know what it will involve. As Barack Obama has pointed out repeatedly, the president doesn't have to make the easy decisions; those are handled at the staff level. It's the complicated, uncertain, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't decisions that reach the Oval Office. "Politics" is the only means we have to assess what each of these two men will bring to that moment when it comes. It might not be a particularly good guide, but it's all we've got.

Comments

I would dispute that the last presidential candidate to be in a situation where decisions could results in deaths and national humiliation was Eisenhower. For instance, George H. W. Bush was both VP during Reagan's near death and was Director of Central Intelligence (back when the DCI was head of the intelligence community). It is laughable to assume that Bush's CIA tenure didn't have countless decisions where he had to decide to risk or not risk agents lives. Likewise, few things create greater national humiliation than botched intelligence.

And though you give short shrift to the office governor, remember that they command the National Guard and state police forces in their states and are responsible for risking those men and women. Afterall, Reagan was the authority behind "Bloody Thursday" and called out thousands of National Guard to put down protests. Hate the decisions if you will, but people died - and potentially a lot more could have - and there was major risk of national humiliation. Likewise Dukakis had to make hard and life endangering decisions to shut down MA after the blizzard of 78 or to commute sentences for convicted murders. Even Clinton had to deal with serious, life-threatening issues like the Fort Chaffee Riots.

If we are willing to drop down to making life or death decisions only, then every presidential candidate since WWII has been there. Kerry and McCain both were military officer's who had to make life and death decisions. The truth is most presidential candidates have held executive power that has required them to make life or death decisions.

Obama is unique for having never held executive power nor held military command at any level. This doesn't change anything about the need to vet candidates, but it is farcical to pretend that other presidential candidates were wholly unvetted on these types of decisions.

It is also important to remember what the President said when interviewed. When asked for his response when he saw the confirming photo of Bin Ladin's body, he paused before he said that it was not a "high five" moment. He then spoke of a quiet sense of satisfaction for the 9-11 families who ,hopefully, can now feel some sense of closure on that enormous tragedy. I/we did not see or hear even a hint of " mission accomplished". I will be 80 y/o next 9/11.

It is just standard basic right wing hypocrisy. Had a Republican ordered the killing of Bin Laden they would be yelling it from the rooftops, screaming it from Fox news, and including it in every single political ad that they run. Because President Obama accomplished it it is "politicizing" an event that should be off-limits and somehow wrong.

Whenever I hear the GOP talking heads rail against the Prez "politicizing" the Bin Laden takedown, I call up the image of young Bush landing on a carrier outside San Diego, climbing down and, in flight suit (with the added codpiece) declare victory in Iraq. At least the president actually accomplished something that he could take singular credit for, for crying out load,

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