WASHINGTON -- The Obama campaign's bin Laden ad, which has stirred a fierce debate, looks to some like a hit below the belt, using a questionable premise to make a political argument that Democrats can be just as tough in dealing with the nation's enemies as Republicans.
Critics, including Huffington Post Media Group Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington, have said President Barack Obama is inappropriately politicizing a grave matter of national security.
But the ad also appears to question Mitt Romney's courage, calling into question whether he would have given a green light to U.S. Navy SEALs who had located what they thought was Osama bin Laden's hideout and awaited presidential permission to strike.
The Obama campaign's grounds for doing so are one Romney quote that has nothing to do with how he would have handled the bin Laden operation, and another that appears to show Romney had a policy position that would have prevented him from approving the strike, but that crumbles under further inspection of its context.
The Obama campaign's ad focuses on the heat-of-the-moment pressure for the president.
"Nobody can make that decision for you," former President Bill Clinton says in the ad. "Look, he knew what would happen. Suppose the Navy SEALs went in there and it hadn't been bin Laden. Suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him … He took the harder and the more honorable path."
The ad then says in white letters on a blue background, "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?"
That's a question of guts. Some would call it questioning Romney's manhood.
But one of the Romney comments that the ad highlights was about the strategic choice to devote military and intelligence resources to looking for bin Laden. And while Romney's point of view likely would have lessened the chances of finding bin Laden, it has no bearing on what he would have done if bin Laden was located and it was up to him to strike or not.
"There is no question that the comments by Governor Romney were taken out of context in a way that distorts their meaning," Eric Edelman, a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, told The Huffington Post by e-mail. "He was talking about the necessity for a strategy that deals with the longer-term challenge of violent jihadist groups."
Edelman, a top Pentagon official during the presidency of George W. Bush, added a jab at Clinton for not catching or killing bin Laden during his presidency, despite the opportunity.
"Interesting choice of messenger since Clinton declined to 'make the tough choice' when he had the chance," Edelman said.
Romney himself batted the criticism from the Obama campaign away, treating it as a ridiculous claim.
"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney said at a campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H.
Yet another quote by Romney in the ad indicates that the Obama campaign may have grounds to question whether the former Massachusetts governor would have ordered the strike on the safe house in Abbottabad a year ago -- not because Romney lacks mettle, but because he had taken a position that would have precluded him from giving the green light.
In 2007, Romney criticized then-candidate Obama for saying he would be willing to send U.S. troops into Pakistan without the Pakistani government's permission, in order to capture or kill bin Laden.
"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," Romney said on Aug. 3, 2007, according to a Reuters report.
Obama, in a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko on Monday, focused in on the specifics of Romney's comment, though he did not mention his Republican rival by name.
"I’d just recommend that everybody take a look at people’s previous statements in terms of whether they thought it was appropriate to go into Pakistan and take out bin Laden," Obama said. "I assume that people meant what they said when they said it. That's been at least my practice. I said that I’d go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did.
"If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they’d do something else, then I’d go ahead and let them explain it," Obama said.
However, two days after Romney made the comments in 2007 that were reported by Reuters, he expanded on his answer during a debate in Iowa hosted by ABC News. His answer to ABC's George Stephanopoulos -– "We keep our options quiet" -– indicated that the objection to Obama's comments about Pakistan was not something that would constrain him from acting, but rather a choice of how to conduct diplomacy.
"It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, 'We’re going to go into your country unilaterally.' Of course, America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interests of America. But we don’t go out and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen of Germany, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.'
"We don’t say those things. We keep our options quiet. We do not go out and say to a nation which is working with us, where we have collaborated and they are our friend and we’re trying to support Musharraf and strengthen him and his nation, that instead that we intend to go in there and potentially bring out a unilateral attack. Recognize to win the war on jihad, we have to not only have a strong military of our own -- and we need a stronger military -- we also need to have strong friends around the world and help moderate Muslims reject the extreme. Because ultimately the only people who can finally defeat these radical Islamic jihadists are the Muslims themselves."
Romney's perspective at the time was shared by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who was a competitor with Obama in the Democratic primary and who took Obama to task one day before Romney did, on Aug. 2, for the same reasons as Romney.
“In order to look tough, he’s undermined his ability to be tough, were he president. Because if you’re going to go into Pakistan -- which is already our policy by the way, if there’s actionable intelligence -– you need actionable intelligence from moderates within Pakistan working with you. Now if you’re already going to say, ‘I’m going to disregard whatever the country thinks and going to invade,’ the likelihood you’re getting the cooperation you need evaporates. It’s a well intended notion he has, but it’s a very naïve way of figuring out how you’re going to conduct foreign policy.”
Biden, now the vice president, has also said he advised against giving a thumbs-up to the SEAL team a year ago because he felt the administration did not have enough information.
Whether the ad is fair or unfair, it has Democrats fired up, for the simple reason that Republicans have portrayed them as wimps on foreign policy for a long time.
"When I saw the ad, I said, 'Good. It's about time,'" Toby Gati, a former key member of Clinton's White House National Security Council, said in an interview. "Obama doesn't have to convince people that he's tougher on foreign policy. The Democrats historically have had difficulty being just as tough as Republicans."
Added Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed Obama's 2009 review of the U.S. stance in Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Seems legitimate to me to contrast [Obama's] record with Mitt's lack of any foreign policy experience except as a Mormon missionary in France."
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded to the criticisms in an e-mailed statement.
“It’s unfortunate that President Obama would prefer to use what was a good day for all Americans as a cheap political ploy and an opportunity to distort Governor Romney's strong policies on the war on terror," Saul said. "President Obama’s feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries, weakened our allies, and threatens to break faith with our military. While the Obama administration has naively stated that ‘the war on terror is over,’ Gov. Romney has always understood we need a comprehensive plan to deal with the myriad threats America faces.”