“Bold and Right Decision”

May 3, 2011 2:39 p.m.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says President Obama made a “bold and right decision” ordering the special forces raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

I had been working on a longer post about this. But I think Graham’s statement goes to the heart of the political significance of this moment for the president.Initial polls show a substantial bump for the president. But the glow will fade and whatever bump there is will almost certainly subside, at least in part. Neither of those points though really go to the heart of the matter. The Republican critique of the president has been that he’s a hesitant and vacillating figure, one who fundamentally misunderstands the nature of power politics and the threats the country faces. In the days just before bin Laden’s death, commentators on the right were having fun with a line from one of Obama’s advisors that on Libya Obama was “leading from behind.” Indeed, that looked to be the one-liner the Republicans planned to use to capture or bumper-stickerize their broader critique of the president’s foreign policy.

But that critique, regardless of its merits, simply doesn’t fit with what we know about how this operation unfolded. Whatever gilding of the lily may have happened on the margins, we know with some confidence that the president was presented with three choices: bomb the compound from the air, send in a commando team or wait for more evidence that bin Laden was there.

His advisors were split, with some supporting each option. But Obama himself opted for the most aggressive and riskiest option. And it worked. That simply doesn’t sound like the caricature Republicans have been trying to paint. It simply doesn’t. And presidents, inevitably, are judged both by results and results that are intuitively graspable and simple to understand. Here both measures apply.

You can also step back from the immediate decision and note that President Obama’s 2008 campaign year foreign policy was based on refocusing American attention on Afghanistan/Pakistan and away from Iraq. Indeed, the most ‘controversial’ thing he said during the campaign was that he would not hesitate to order an operation pretty much exactly like the one he eventually ordered. Sen. McCain and many other Republicans, whether they really believed it, criticized him mercilessly for saying he’d do that.

I’ve heard some people argue that Republicans will claim both that torture was critical to apprehending bin Laden and that bin Laden was just a symbol these days and not someone operationally threatening the US.

I don’t think that’s right. On the initial evidence, the first claim doesn’t appear to be true, though we should wait to learn more. And I’m pretty sure that for people who aren’t committed partisans, this will seem like small print, sour grapes or simply special pleading.

If you’re an independent voter — not especially committed to either the right or left’s take on the torture debate, I don’t buy that your take on Obama’s role in killing bin Laden is going to be seriously affected by the argument that some of the evidence used to track down bin Laden was gotten through torture and if President Obama would have been president in 2002-2003 he would not have allowed torture and therefore bizarro Obama back in 2002 would have made it impossible for real Obama to have succeeded in getting bin Laden in 2011.

Will the president’s opponents continue to call him a ‘week-kneed’ amateur? Of course. After a few weeks of going silent, I have no doubt they will. And I have no doubt that partisans will continue believing it. But elections aren’t about committed partisans. They’re about loosely-affiliated or unaffiliated persuadables.

More to the point, we tend to overstate the importance of argument in political debate. Much of the game is simply having a coherent and powerful response — one that partisans can hit in a few words, feel like they’ve addressed the issue and confidently move on. What was so lethal about the ‘for it before he was against it’ line in 2004 was that it took Dems 4 or 5 minutes to explain what Kerry meant and even then it didn’t sound very good. That’s not only inadequate but demoralizing.

Obama’s supporters now have a concrete, resonant and reasonably hard to dispute response to what was set to be the Republicans primary line of attack on foreign policy. And that’s a big deal.

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