I don’t know if this more about how politics works or how Mitt Romney thinks or whether it might even be about how big a deal it is that Pres. Obama authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s a fairly rich package of all those things and it has provided the Obamaites with a nice opportunity to make Romney squirm, including cameo appearance by Bill Clinton.
When Romney ran for president the first time, he said in an April 27, 2007 interview, referring to the hunt for bin Laden: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
It’s hard to know how seriously Romney meant this. Seeking political advantage, seeking to differentiate himself from others in both parties whom he may have felt were overdoing the “we must get bin Laden no matter it takes” theme, perhaps hoping the “billions” reference actually made him look like the fiscal conservative in the field. But it came out of his mouth and he’s stuck with it.
Within a week, he saw the error of his words. John McCain, who would eventually beat him for the nomination in that cycle, was pounding him and hauling out the heavy emotional rhetoric about how he would “follow that SOB to the gates of hell.”
So Romney pulled one of his characteristic straddles. Pressed at the next televised debate about his earlier statement, Romney said:
“Of course we get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted on America.”
The follow-up: “Do we move heaven and Earth to do it?”
MR. ROMNEY: We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another. This is about Shi’a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.
They also probably want to bring down the United States of America. This is a global effort we’re going to have to lead to overcome this jihadist effort. It’s more than Osama bin Laden. But he is going to pay, and he will die.”
That put Romney on politically safer ground, but, as a technical, rhetorical and possibly cosmological matter, he was on the record as arguing that we should move “everything,” but not “heaven and earth” to get bin Laden.
In 2008, candidate Obama made “”We will kill bin Laden” a standard part of his foreign policy promise. He faulted President George W. Bush for letting bin Laden slip away when he was trapped in Tora Bora and he built the importance of killing bin Laden deeply into his argument that the war in Iraq had been a mistake. He had the advantage that year of being the only major candidate who had publicly opposed the war before it started and before it became widely unpopular.
And Obama also specified – to the point that he was criticized by Hillary Clinton and others it — that if he was president and found bin Laden in Pakistan, he would kill him there whether the Pakistanis liked it or not.
From mid-2007 on, candidate Obama adopted this line in his standard speech on the topic:
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
Romney also disagreed with that, saying in August of ’07:
“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.” He called Obama’s statement about acting in Pakistan without Pakistani participation “ill-timed” and “ill-considered,” explaining:
“There is a war being waged by terrorists of different types and nature across the world. We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them.”
After Romney, and Clinton had been driven from the race, Obama continued to press the argument that killing bin Laden was a top priority, even if he was found in Pakistan and the U.S. couldn’t get Pakistani cooperation. Here’s an extended excerpt from an October 7, 2008, Obama-McCain debate, in which an audience member asked whether the U.S. should respect Pakistani sovereignty if bin Laden was found to be hiding in Pakistan:
Obama: “We have a difficult situation in Pakistan. I believe that part of the reason we have a difficult situation is because we made a bad judgment going into Iraq in the first place when we hadn’t finished the job of hunting down bin Laden and crushing al-Qaida.
So what happened was we got distracted, we diverted resources, and ultimately bin Laden escaped, set up base camps in the mountains of Pakistan in the northwest provinces there.
They are now raiding our troops in Afghanistan, destabilizing the situation. They’re stronger now than at any time since 2001. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to reverse course because that’s the central front on terrorism. They are plotting to kill Americans right now. As Secretary Gates, the Defense secretary, said, the war against terrorism began in that region, and that’s where it will end.
So part of the reason I think it’s so important for us to end the war in Iraq is to be able to get more troops into Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to do what it needs to do, eliminate some of the drug trafficking that’s funding terrorism.
But I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can’t coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars, and then he’s making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants. What I have said is we’re going encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our non-military aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants.
And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out.
We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
Well, every Democrat that runs for office carries the political burden of his party’s reputation as the more dovish of the major parties. Obama has a story with many elements to tell about his record on foreign and military policy. Many of the elements are controversial, but the one element that receives almost universal acclaim is the killing of bin Laden.
This year, Romney, while criticizing many aspects of Obama’s foreign policy record, has praised Obama’s decision to authorize the strike that killed bin Laden.
But all those earlier comments are still on the record. Romney hasn’t retracted or repudiated them.
So, today, the Obamaites have released what my favorite aggregator Taegan Goddard called a “powerful new video” in which Bill Clinton not only extols Obama’s actions in the raid that killed bin Laden, but also raises the question, given Romney’s earlier comments, of whether Romney would have authorized the raid. Here’s the video: