Let’s unravel this a bit: Why did the White House yesterday tell John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, to speak publicly about drone strikes?
First, here’s what Brennan said:
Let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.
There’s a lot of reason to question the accuracy of nearly everything in that statement: the law, especially international law but also constitutional protections against killing American civilians, is not on Obama’s side; the drone strikes have certainly not always been aimed at “specific Al Qaeda terrorists” but often targeted locations, not specific people; and few of those killed were actively engaged in planning “terrorist attacks on the United States” but, instead, involved in local conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. And Brennan ignored the civilians killed in drone attacks. But let’s leave those questions aside. Really, what’s going on is politics, led by Obama’s desire to present himself as King of the Antiterrorism World.
Obama and Vice President Biden—who, it ought to be noted, opposed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—are now throwing the killing of bin Laden in Romney’s face. Yesterday, in a speech, Biden repeated the glib slogan: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” and he added that if Romney were president, bin Laden might still be alive. Obama, doubling down on Biden’s comments, added:
I said that I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him and I did. If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they'd do something else, then I'd go ahead and let them explain it.
True enough, in 2008 Obama said, in a debate with John McCain, that if he had information about the location of bin Laden and his allies, he’d go into Pakistan unilaterally. McCain reacted in horror, saying that it was wrong to send US forces into Pakistan without coordinating with the government in Islamabad. There’s no question that, on that issue at least, McCain was the dove.
To be sure, McCain wasn’t the dove because he opposed using force but because he, like many conservatives, supported the long alliance between the Pentagon and the Pakistani military, including its intelligence service, the ISI and cozy relationship that for half a century or more lined the United States up with Pakistan’s military dictators who repeatedly seized power from civilian governments.
Yet McCain was right.
Did the killing of Osama bin Laden really change much? Was it worth it to kill him, if the result was the destabilization of Pakistan, the undermining of its current civilian government, the provocation to Pakistan’s substantial hard-core Islamist constituents, the breakdown of US-Pakistan relations and the fact that now it’s a lot more difficult for the United States to get out of Afghanistan safely and easily because Pakistan is no longer cooperating with the United States?
Sure, it’s a political plus for Obama to tell revenge-minded American voters that bin Laden is dead—even if we have to listen to Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, repeatedly use the word “kill” when talking about bin Laden, as if it were a video game.
Maybe Mitt Romney is right when he says that “even Jimmy Carter” would have ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden if he had the chance. And, for sure, Romney’s foreign policy would be a lot worse than Obama’s, on issues from Iran and Syria and China and Russia. But let’s not cheer Obama et al. when they tout the great victory of last May 1. To me, it sounds like Mission Accomplished all over again.