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Rove's Failed Rewrite: Bush, Romney Opposed Bin Laden Strike

March 23, 2012

This week, Karl Rove took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in the feeble attempt to undermine of one of President Obama's signature achievements, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. "Mr. Obama did," Rove sniffed, "what virtually any commander in chief would have done in the same situation." Well, not quite every commander-in-chief. As it turns out, back in 2008 both President Bush and would-be President Romney ridiculed then candidate Obama's pledge that "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."
That didn't stop Bush's Brain from vomiting forth a new revisionist history this week. Criticizing the new 17-minute Obama campaign 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.

If this GOP line of attack sounds familiar, it should. In December, Mitt Romney similarly dismissed taking out the Al Qaeda chieftain, "I think other presidents and other candidates, like myself, would do exactly the same thing."
As it turns out, not so much.
In May 2007, Governor Romney said of Osama Bin Laden, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." Mercifully, then Senator Barack Obama had a different idea.
On August 1, 2007, 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."

But 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 ("Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?"), 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 just a few months ago 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 in December 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."

No, they would not. Because it wasn't just John McCain and Mitt Romney who in 2008 mocked Barack Obama for announcing, "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." President George W. Bush also got in on the Republican fun.
President Bush he John McCain scoffed at 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 bogeyman 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 Karl Rove who still refuse to give credit where credit is due, their message to President Obama should be a simple one.
Thank you.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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