The election may hinge on economic and domestic policy, but this past week the campaign was all about national security, specifically the president's role as commander in chief.
The prompt was the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden, which encouraged the Obama campaign to put out an extraordinary campaign advertisement praising the president for showing the courage to order the strike and suggesting that Romney would not have done so.
The critique of Romney was fundamentally dishonest in the way that campaign ads often are. The ad cherry-picked Romney quotes and deployed them out of context. The valid Romney observation that defeating al Qaeda would require a comprehensive strategy, not one limited to hunting down a single man, got distorted by the Obama scriptwriters into a hesitation to pursue Bin Laden. And the valid Romney observation that it was a mistake to boast in advance about conducting unilateral strikes against the territory of our Pakistani partner got distorted into an unwillingness to act in America's national interest.
Nevertheless, while the Obama campaign misrepresented Romney's position on the hunt for Bin Laden, the advertisement was (perhaps inadvertently) plausible in claiming not every president would have ordered the Abbottabad raid -- and, in this respect, it was odd to hear former President Clinton making this argument.
Others have commented on how unseemly it was for the former president to participate in a dishonest attack like this. Both former Presidents Bush have been scrupulous (thus far) about hewing to an elder-statesman, above-the-partisan-fray sort of role. It is unfortunate that former Presidents Carter and Clinton, for all the other good they have done after leaving office, have not been so scrupulous.
Still, the interesting thing about President Clinton's commentary was not how partisan but how ironic it was. Because of the last eight men who were the runners-up or winners of the office of president, the one least likely to have ordered the Abbottabad raid was President Clinton. Clinton was famously casualty phobic and uber-cautious in the use of force, for understandable reasons (as I have outlined at length elsewhere, including here and here.
And the Abbottabad raid required a commander in chief willing to take a risky bet. Consider the factors that might daunt an irresolute decider:
- Only circumstantial evidence that Bin Laden actually was in the compound -- evidence that was weaker than the evidence that suggested Iraq had reconstituted its WMD programs, according to a stunning report by Peter Bergen.
- His vice-president recommending against it.
- His secretary of Defense recommending an airstrike rather than a raid with special forces.
- A collapsing partnership with Pakistan that would suffer a setback if the raid went perfectly according to plan, but much, much worse if anything went wrong.
Under those circumstances, President George W. Bush probably still would have ordered the attack, as did President Obama. But is anyone confident that President Clinton would have?
The decision President Obama faced was a hard one and he took a gamble that paid off. He deserves credit for it -- credit that Americans of both parties have been reliably paying him. However, let's be honest that it is a decision that compares favorably not with Republicans but with other Democrats.