Michael Smerconish: President made the call when others may not have

Thank you, Navy SEALs, for killing Osama bin Laden. And thank you, President Obama, for turning them loose to do their job, just as you said you would.

This past week, an Obama campaign Web commercial featuring Bill Clinton quotes Mitt Romney, in 2007, downplaying the significance of getting bin Laden: "It's not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars, just trying to catch one person."

That ad got the goat of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of Sept. 11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad," he indignantly declared.

Romney himself said "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order" to get bin Laden. His comparison served only to unintentionally highlight the mission's considerable risks, as it invoked the memory of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission on April 24, 1980. (The mission failed, but Carter did give the order.)

Obama responded to the debate by saying, "I hardly think that you've seen any excessive celebration taking place here," and suggested that people should look to prior statements regarding whether it was appropriate to go into Pakistan.


I know exactly to what he was referring and it has its roots in the last presidential campaign, not the current one.

Long before many gave him a serious shot at the presidency, then-Sen. Obama announced his intentions with regard to Pakistan. On Aug. 1, 2007, he said: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President (Pervez) Musharraf won't act, we will."

That drew a rebuke from then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during a Democratic debate on Aug. 7: "I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamic extremists who are in bed with al-Qaida and Taliban."

En route to capturing the GOP nomination, McCain, on Feb. 20, 2008, also chastised Obama: "The best idea is to not broadcast what you're going to do. That's naive."

But Obama stood his ground, repeating his willingness to pursue bin Laden in five different conversations I had with him (three while a candidate, two while president). His previous words now look prescient.

On March 24, 2008, he told me: "Sen. Clinton, Sen. McCain, and George Bush all suggested I had said something wrong when I said we should be going after bin Laden and high-value targets, and if we've got them in our sights we should ask for Pakistan's cooperation, we should ask Pakistan to take them out, but if they don't, we shouldn't need permission to go after somebody or folks that killed 3,000 Americans."

And on Oct. 9, 2008, he said to me: "Now we need to work with Pakistan to dismantle those training camps and kill bin Laden. But if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to take bin Laden out, and we have him in our sights, we've got to do it."

The irony of the current debate is that Romney and McCain — the GOP's most recent standard-bearers — are leading the chorus of those seeking to diminish Obama's authorization of the raid at Abbottabad by implying that "any leader" would have made the same decision.


But if their previous public statements were to be believed, neither would have been a lock to pull the trigger. At the time, Romney called Obama's August 2007 statements about pursuing high-value targets in Pakistan "ill-timed and ill-considered."

And a year after he called Obama's remarks "naive," McCain demurred in a discussion with me about the possibility of unilateral U.S. action to bring bin Laden to justice.

"Pakistan is a sovereign nation and we have to have the cooperation of Pakistan to have these operations succeed," McCain said during our June 2008 interview.

"If you alienate Pakistan and it turns into an anti-American government, then you will have much greater difficulties," he continued. "Do they do what we want them to do? No. Have they been helpful to us? Yes. Has Musharraf been a friend of ours? He has been.

"I wish there were better relations between (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai and Musharraf. I wish a lot of things were different in this world. But ... you and I just have an honest disagreement if you think we can just get tough on Pakistan and they will do what we want them to do."

Obama was the first to voice a willingness to give the order to launch such a mission, and has never wavered. Moreover, given the surgical precision with which the SEALs operated, it is easy to overlook the possible perils that the mission presented. The decision to give the order to launch the attack appears to have been easy only in retrospect. It bears remembering that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Biden had serious reservations about the plan.

Had the mission failed, Obama would have been roundly chastised by the same people who now refuse to accord him any credit for the mission's success. Again, the president was decisive, and deserves credit for making a decision that was fraught with peril, politically, militarily, and diplomatically.

He's earned the right to say, "Mission accomplished."



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