Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Romney’s bin Laden problem

ONE WEEK ago, in the biggest forgone conclusion in the current presidential campaign, the Republican campaign was effectively over, with or without the shouting. On April 24, with a clean sweep of the primaries in five northeastern states, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got a clear glide path to the Republican nomination for the presidency. The inevitability he’s claimed from the start is — with 844 delegates of the 1,144 he needs to officially clinch — more or less a given.

“After 43 primaries and caucuses, many long days and not a few long nights, I can say with confidence — and gratitude — that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility,” he said In his victory speech that night in New Hampshire (the location being a smart bit of campaign optics, basking in glory in the state where his campaign began).

Romney doubled down on his transition to a general-election stance, going right after President Obama. "Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less."

"The last few years have been the best Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do."

"As I look around at the millions of Americans without work, the graduates who can't get a job, the soldiers who return home to an unemployment line, it breaks my heart," he said. "This does not have to be. It is the result of failed leadership and of a faulty vision."

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Up to right about now, Romney has enjoyed the relative advantage of preaching his bona fides to an audience predisposed to accept them (however reluctantly): Republican primary voters. Now Romney moves to the bigger stage, and the challenge of speaking to a national audience.

Their demands for a deeper, more sensitive and strategic approach to addressing the nation’s problems may call on a skill set Romney doesn’t have. That deficit of nuance has shown up recently in some of Romney’s pronouncements on foreign policy. One issue in particular.

One year ago today, the nation reveled in news that was long-awaited and generally unexpected. The wicked witch was dead. On orders of President Obama, in an operation he personally observed, Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was tracked down and killed by Navy SEAL Team at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The anniversary of that game-changer was noted by President Obama, who, in some masterful stagecraft of his own, addressed the nation tonight — not from the Oval Office but from a military hangar at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, Afghanistan — to announce the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan, more than a decade after the U.S. invasion.

In an address heavy with moment and specifics (Current TV’s Eliot Spitzer called it “both a victory speech for the president and an exit strategy”), the president said he’d signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai effectively defining the postwar relationship between the United States and Afghanistan after U.S. forces leave, presumably at the end of 2014.

“We broke the Taliban's momentum,” Obama said. “We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set -- to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach. Here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

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THE PRESIDENT'S address, and the anniversary it justifiably takes note of, are the latest challenges, optic and material, for the Romney campaign. They’re the latest evidence of what the Romney camp says the president doesn’t have. Romney’s claim of Obama’s “failed leadership” and “faulty vision” on matters foreign and domestic have to confront the unalloyed success of the bin Laden kill, and the ways in which Romney’s own comments have come back to bite him. Again.

It was August 2008 when, speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, about then-candidate Obama’s vow to take out bin Laden even if found within the confines of Pakistan, Romney begged to differ. Inartfully. “I do not concur … in a plan to enter an ally of ours and their country in a manner complete with bombing and so forth,” he said.

The translation of that syntactically mangled sentence is easy given the distinctions of party politics (and Romney’s need, even then, to distance himself from a Democrat’s thinking): Romney would have reflexively respected the territorial rights of Pakistan even if Pakistan was harboring, deliberately or by accident, the world’s master-builder terrorist.

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Fast forward to today. Romney noted the May 1 bin Laden anniversary at a photo op at a New York City fire station, accompanied by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose national identity is synonymous with 9/11.

This morning, interviewed by Charlie Rose on CBS' "This Morning,” Romney said that “[a]ny American, any thinking American, would have ordered exactly the same thing" as the operation Obama set in motion a year ago.

"Had I been president of the United States, I would have made the same decision as the president made," Romney said to reporters later in the day.

It was a tacit concession to having been outflanked by the president’s address, obviously, but it was more. Romney’s about-face on the 2008 statement was more proof of the, uh, malleability of Romney’s political convictions — and his uncanny ability to be one step (or more) behind reality. This was the man, after all, who went on CNN at the end of March and said, with a straight face, that Russia was “without question our number-one geopolitical foe.”

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ROMNEY'S 2008 bin Laden position and his abandonment of that position today also point to the bigger problem for the GOP vis-à-vis foreign policy: In one international triumph after another, with a deft blend of diplomacy and effective force, the Obama White House has over three years reversed the axis of the public’s perception of which party will use the big stick when necessary.

“[For] Mitt Romney and the Republicans, it would be very hard for them to attack the president on this front,” said Democratic strategist Krystal Ball, to Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC tonight. “Really, in the last 25 years, at least, Republicans have been the strong ones, they’ve been the ones the populace has trusted on foreign policy and national security. It’s quite remarkable that this president’s policy has been so good and so nuanced and so successful that he has unassailably taken the upper hand on this.”

With his fistful of victories last week, Mitt Romney effectively inherits the leadership of the Republican Party. He also inherits the need to take the lead on creating a cogent, consistent policy on Afghanistan, one he can take before American voters. But with the undeniable success of the bin Laden raid — and the change in national self-perception that success brought about — President Obama’s left Mitt Romney precious little wiggle room on this facet of national security. Romney’s own willingness to be transparently expedient, at the further expense of his own credibility, has left him even less.

Image credits: Romney: via YouTube. bin Laden death celebration in Times Square: Via stuff.co.nz. White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011: Pete Souza/The White House. Bin Laden Ten Most Wanted release: FBI.

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