Anybody's choice

>> Wednesday, May 02, 2012

And here we go: just a day after whining about how I was unlikely to write about politics anytime soon, a political subject pops its head up. With the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death and the President understandably pointing out that he gave the orders that made it happen, Mitt Romney is out claiming any President would have done it, "even Jimmy Carter". Which is apparently supposed to be a burn.

So, y'know, maybe: Carter did authorize Operation Eagle Claw, the unlucky and unsuccessful rescue attempt that failed to rescue the American hostages in Tehran in 1980. There are some gross parallels, I suppose: Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Neptune Spear both involved helicopters. And then things kinda diverge. But: helicopters.

But as Fred Kaplan points out at Slate, the President's decision wasn't really the no-brainer Romney et al. are trying to portray it as; indeed, there were dissenters and critics during the planning phase, including Secretary Of Defense Robert Gates, who'd served the Carter Administration in a CIA post at the time of the failed hostage rescue. There were plenty of reasons the whole thing might not have worked, and I don't think there's any doubt that if the mission had failed--which it had a good chance of doing, it was risky business--hardly anybody in the GOP would be saying, "Tough break, coulda happened to anyone, any President would have ordered it, lay off the criticism, etc."

There's also another point here that Kaplan alludes to1 but doesn't dive into, which I don't blame him for because I'm not real eager to get into it, but I think it probably needs to be tossed out there. And that is that Romney could--and absolutely won't for painfully obvious reasons--go after President Obama for the decision to take down bin Laden and minimize it or nail him for taking credit for it. And that would be the fact that there's certainly a very good case to be made that it's not only minor-technicality-just-a-teeny-bit illegal to go violating the sovereign borders of a country that we not only aren't at war with but in fact are nominally allied with, in order to land helicopters in a resident alien's yard to forcibly break into his residence, attack him, and leave nothing but bodies and a crashed helicopter behind, but that it's also maybe arguably an act of war. Arguably. It's certainly not the kind of thing we'd do if the British were harboring a terrorist, though admittedly we have a much more functional and working relationship with the Brits and can generally trust them not to go blabbing about our secret joint plans to their targets. (Tangent: I keep wanting to call the Brits "Cousins" because I seem to really be getting into John le Carré these days and that's how his British intelligence people refer to us Americans.) But there's also the fact that aside from having a healthy partnership with the British, they're not swirling round the failed-state-drainpipe and can do a reasonably okay of protecting their borders, which is why we would have never attempted something like the bin Laden killing to a target in the old Soviet Union or contemporary China, or even, more realistically, say, North Korea, which would reboot the Korean War.

Pakistan can't protect its own borders and isn't in a particularly good position to declare war on us. They can make life moderately difficult, which brings us to the related problem that Neptune Spear certainly burned bridges with our "ally"; which would be a bigger problem if we weren't trying to wind down the Afghanistan War and still had a stronger need to base operations in Pakistan. But there you are: I think it's fair to say that at best the President's decision was a big ol' "fuck you" to Pakistan and at worse was, again, an act of war, either of which could have led any President--perhaps even Jimmy Carter, since his name was dragged into it--to decide it wasn't worth it even if the plan had better than a 40%-60% chance of success (those numbers drawn from Kaplan's piece), i.e. average it out and it's a coin toss.

Also, this: I think we all know--and certainly the President and his advisors had to discuss this--that whatever may have technically been in the SEAL team's orders to capture bin Laden if they could, that this was really an assassination mission from the get-go. Which, you know, wouldn't have been legal. Either.

Now, the thing about all this is: I'm pretty cromulent with the results, which I admit makes me a pretty big hypocrite, actually. I'm not exactly losing sleep because we stepped all over the shoes of a worthless, backstabbing, shitty ally to get to a one-man national security risk, and then, oh-woe-is-us, it turned out we had to shoot him instead of taking him alive and bringing him to the trial that I am morally and ethically required as a super-left-wing-pacifistically-inclined-respecter-of-the-rule-of-law to say he absolutely should have had. Not. Losing. A. Single. Wink. I haven't even had a nap disrupted by the shuddering thought that the President's authorization of a covert military mission to "capture" (wink, wink) bin Laden in the middle of allied soil pretty much goes against everything I think I believe in about foreign relations and the use of force and courts and all that nice civilized stuff. Well. You know, sometimes, you just have to shrug and accept that sometimes the toga comes off and you're just a hairy barbarian beneath.

I'm okay with what the President did. So are most people. Which is why Mitt Romney has to lie and say anyone would have done it. He can't actually go and say something vaguely sensible like, "Hey, I'm as glad Osama's dead as the next guy, but we can't just go penetrating friendly borders with covert teams and killing people in residential neighborhoods in the middle of the night, we have to work with our allies to coordinate arrests and extraditions and trials and all that crap, and when you elect me you're electing a President who's going to play by the rules instead of being a loose cannon." Vaguely sensible, yeah, but it would go over like a fat man off a trampoline.

The best way to close is probably with this dead-on point from Kaplan:

Romney’s position—or, more accurate, his pose—on these issues is so preposterous, one can only surmise that he can’t be serious. More likely, he and his proxies in the right-wing press are adopting Karl Rove’s strategy of attacking the opponent’s strengths. In the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry’s war-hero status posed a threat against George W. Bush, so Rove and the Swift Boaters painted Kerry as a war coward; Kerry and his team were so flummoxed, they didn’t know how to respond. Now Mitt Romney, who has no foreign-policy experience whatever, is painting Obama as the dangerous naif.

Indeed. And maybe the public's stupid enough to bite, gods help us. But the President made this decision and he gets the spoils from it as surely as he would have taken the beating from a disaster.

1In case you didn't spot it, all Kaplan says about it is:

Romney has kept up a barrage of attacks on Obama’s national-security record—which is puzzling, to say the least, since there are no politically palatable routes to criticizing the president on this score, except from the left, which is hardly an angle that Romney or any other Republican (except Ron Paul) would traverse.

And the President has indeed been attacked from the left on his national security record, with some critics even nibbling at the bin Laden raid. (E.g. the ever-reliable Glenn Greenwald.)


Steve Buchheit Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 8:47:00 PM EDT  

Not to mention the continuing casus belli of the drone attacks (of which he loosened the targeting qualifications from "Clear and Documented Threat" to "Possibly Bad, Could Be a Problem in the Future"). But then, do you really want to go toe to toe with a President who not only travels to an active war zone to sign a SOFA, but does so the week after a major attack, and stays to do a live feed televised speech? Those, my friends, are solid brass.

And let us not forget that this nominal ally is also a nuclear power with ballistic missile tech that can destabilize that theater and cause an amazing amount of trouble for us.

Nick from the O.C.,  Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 1:59:00 PM EDT  

I am reminded of The West Wing episode arc where John Goodman, playing the Republican Speaker of the House, replaces President Bartlett after Zoe was kidnapped in retaliation for Bartlett ordering the asassination of a Mid-East politician with ties to terrorists.

A journalist asks about the justification of killing the politician, implying it was an illegal act. Goodman's character replies--

"He was a one man command and control center. I'm just sorry we couldn't kill the bastard twice."

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