Politics is a rough sport, but President Obama has taken unusually heavy flak for running a campaign ad that credits his role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, and for using statements by Mitt Romney to suggest that the former governor might not have exhibited similar leadership.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Senator John McCain accused the president of hypocrisy. But some of the harshest criticism has come from unexpected quarters. New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Michael Shear seemed to imply that the president has been inappropriately boastful. "Few presidents have talked about the killing of an individual enemy in such an expansive way," according to Baker and Shear, who added that Obama has taken the "unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man." Arianna Huffington, typically an Obama supporter, said that the bin Laden ad is "despicable."
I'm disinclined to celebrate bin Laden's or anyone else's death. But the broader context is that Republicans have been criticizing Democrats for being weak on foreign policy for two generations, even when such criticisms were unwarranted. As Slate's William Saletan reminds us, the Bush administration and its surrogates, including Senator McCain, were shameless in their use of war rhetoric to depict John Kerry and other Democrats as wimps. (Disclaimer: Saletan is a personal friend). So it seems inappropriate to blame the president for inoculating himself against such accusations.
While it is true that President Obama cites a military success to score a point, compare his approach to the Bush administration's use of boasting to reframe failure as success. In one notable instance, Bush cynically used the word "victory" 15 times in a single speech to try to fool the public into believing that the war in Iraq could be won. When President Obama heralds a foreign policy success, he's not trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
I'm not claiming that President Obama ignores the domestic political implications of his foreign policy agenda. No president could be expected to do so. But when he pursues a foreign policy initiative, it's generally and reasonably connected to the promotion of the national interest. By contrast, the previous administration seemed willing to pursue foreign policies to achieve parochial political ends, even when doing so undermined U.S. security. Hoping to justify the decision to launch the Iraq war, for example, Bush authorized torture to try to compel detainees to acknowledge a link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks.
When it comes to bragging about killing U.S. enemies, President Bush and his surrogates arguably went beyond the current administration in terms of both the frequency and tone of their rhetoric. With the exception of his 2007 State of the Union speech, Bush bragged about killing U.S. enemies in every SOTU address between 2002 and 2008. In his 2004 State of the Union address, for example, he said that "We're tracking Al Qaeda around the world, and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed." He added that "of the top 55 officials of the former [Iraqi] regime, we have captured or killed 45." So, Bush's boastfulness about killing was not infrequent.
On some occasions, Bush used an unfortunate tone to brag about killing. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he said that, "To date we have arrested or otherwise dealt with many key commanders of Al Qaeda... All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries... And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." I have never heard President Obama speak about the death of an enemy in such a chesty way.
Senior Republican operatives such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton have even gone so far as to brag that the killing of bin Laden was the result of policies that the Bush administration put into place. If the Republicans can take credit for the bin Laden operation, why should President Obama be panned for doing so?
All Americans would benefit if political leaders in both parties set aside bravado, and insisted on a thoughtful, understated foreign policy conversation. That said, the recent criticism of President Obama seems impervious to a political climate that he did not create, and to the GOP's track record not just of bombast, or even of bluster for political point-scoring, but of bragging to divert the public's attention away from failure and to re-code failure as success ("Mission Accomplished!")
If there is anything "unusual" about President Obama's record, it is that he finished the job.