Following is the second in a series of opinions reacting to Osama bin Laden’s death, which I am sharing.
Bin Laden’s Last Challenge–to Republicans
by William McGurn
In life, Osama bin Laden‘s ability to elude capture for almost a decade after 9/11 challenged the American claim that no enemy is beyond her reach. In death, the al Qaeda terrorist now presents a new challenge, mostly to Republicans hoping to run in 2012. The message is this: You better have a coherent foreign policy to go along with your fiscal agenda.
It’s not just that Barack Obama is looking strong. For the moment, at least, he is strong. In the nearly 10 years since our troops set foot in Afghanistan, a clear outcome remains far from sight, and many Americans have wearied of the effort. As President Obama reminded us Sunday night, getting bin Laden doesn’t mean our work there is done–but his success in bringing the world’s most hunted man to justice does reinvigorate that work.
It does so, moreover, in a way that few of Mr. Obama’s recent Democratic predecessors in the Oval Office have matched. The killing of bin Laden was no one-shot missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory suspected of making chemical weapons, as ordered by Bill Clinton. Nor was it a failed hostage rescue in Iran a la Jimmy Carter. Instead, it was a potent combination of American force and presidential decisiveness.
First, Mr. Obama authorized a ground operation with Navy Seals far inside Pakistani territory. Second, he did not inform the Pakistanis.
These are the kinds of hard decisions that presidents have to make, where the outcome is likely to be either spectacular success or equally spectacular failure. For taking the risks that would paralyze others, and for succeeding where others have failed, the president and his team have earned the credit they are now getting.
Yes, in the days to come we may learn that the real story is a little more complicated than the one Mr. Obama gave us Sunday night. Did enhanced interrogation play a role in generating vital intelligence? And about that order to the CIA to get bin Laden: Wasn’t that a modification of an order given by George W. Bush after 9/11?
Nevertheless, in going after and getting bin Laden as forcefully as he did, Mr. Obama has just undermined one of the primary narratives against him–that of an indecisive president who worries more about the rights of our enemies than the freedom and safety of our citizens. If Mr. Obama ends up toppling Moammar Gadhafi too, he will look even stronger.
In fact, even weaker policies–e.g., cutting defense, pulling out from Afghanistan, might now be argued from a position of strength: “I said I would get us out of Iraq, and I did–and Iraq is stronger. I said I would prosecute our real enemies in Afghanistan, and I did–and we got bin Laden. It is true that I am reluctant to commit America to overseas conflicts. But when we are engaged I will finish the job.”
Do Republican candidates even have an answer? Apart from Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin, few Republicans even talk about foreign policy. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty probably comes closest to offering a coherent vision, having come out for a robust foreign policy that backs up our friends and takes on our enemies without apology.
Within the GOP, however, there remains a strain that is deeply suspicious of U.S. involvement overseas, especially since the end of the Cold War. The irrepressible Ron Paul, of course, has been most explicit. Before announcing he wouldn’t run in the GOP presidential primaries, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour sounded a similar note when he complained about trying to turn Afghanistan into Ireland and suggested we start shrinking our troop presence there.
As for the rest, the former governors from last time around (Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee) seem to be hedging their bets. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels served under President Bush, but he would hardly be confused for an advocate of any freedom agenda. For the most part, the Republican hope appears to be that eight-plus-percent unemployment along with six-dollar-a-gallon gasoline will be enough to defeat Barack Obama.
They may be right. Certainly one forceful strike is no guarantee that Mr. Obama will be re-elected, much less that he will follow-up with other muscular acts. But it does make the argument against him weaker. Up to now, Republican candidates seem to have believed they had been gifted with the second coming of Jimmy Carter.
If Republicans are smart they will recognize that this meme took a big hit when a Navy Seal put a bullet in bin Laden’s head. Along with his decision to ramp up the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president now has the opportunity to present himself in a way few Democrats ever have: as more hard-nosed about protecting the American people from foreign threats than his Republican opponents.
(Write to MainStreet@wsj.com)