It was George W. Bush without the aircraft carrier: stealthy, dramatic, and something of a stunt.
With his surprise visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, President Obama seized a burgeoning debate about whether he was exploiting the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s demise and injecting a huge dose of steroids.
It was a victory lap surrounded by a sea of khaki uniforms, brandishing the role of commander-in-chief, wielding the weapon of a prime-time televised address.
There was no compelling diplomatic reason for Obama to make the trip, of course. He was signing an agreement with Hamid Karzai to transfer responsibility to Afghan security forces that had already been negotiated. But it was perfectly timed for a president trying to hang onto his job.
Obama used his stern but upbeat speech to lay out his blueprint for ending the war-and providing non-military assistance after that-while noting that the administration is "in direct discussions with the Taliban" about a negotiated peace. In the process, the president took several not-so-veiled shots at the Bush administration.
The war became a quagmire after the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama suggested, because "America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq"-the one that he opposed. And in 2002, surrounded at Tora Bora, he reminded the country, "Bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border," on Bush's watch.
Since he took office, however, "the tide has turned," "we broke the Taliban's momentum," "devastated al-Qaeda's leadership" and, of course, killed OBL. It was the equivalent of declaring victory while promising a light at the end of the tunnel for the many Americans who are "tired of war."
But the timing of the day's events loomed large. As an Associated Press reporter asked on a conference call, couldn’t this be seen as “fairly craven politics”? A senior administration official said from Bagram Air Base that there was a period of a few weeks to sign the pact and Obama wanted it done in Kabul: “Given that window of time, it is certainly a resonant day for both of our countries.”
And a resonant day for Obama’s reelection campaign.
It’s worth recalling that Bush wrote the playbook. When he showed up in Baghdad to serve Thanksgiving turkey to the troops months after ordering the 2003 invasion, the trip dominated the news for days. By the end of his second term, Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and other officials had popped into Iraq so many times that the surprise element dwindled.
If there was a downside to Obama’s trip, it was to remind the country that the decade-old war in Afghanistan is still dragging on. While the president is trying “to responsibly end the war” by 2014, as a senior official put it, about 90,000 American troops remain.
But in politics, pictures are more powerful than words. And the image of the president who got Osama, surrounded by cheering soldiers in the country where the terrorist plotted the 9/11 attacks, is a statement in and of itself.
And Mitt Romney, who has criticized Obama’s Afghan policy, has offered few specifics on what he would do differently—not wanting to been seen as prolonging an increasingly unpopular war.
The trip came as the Obama camp appeared to have gained the upper hand in a round of sniping over whether he was exploiting the anniversary of bin Ladin’s death.
The contretemps began with an Obama Web ad, narrated by Bill Clinton, not only praised the president’s decision to order the raid on the Pakistani compound where bin Laden was believed to be hiding but suggested that Romney might not have made the same call. Outraged surrogates and other Republicans cried foul, and Romney himself claimed that “even Jimmy Carter” would have given the order to capture or kill Osama.
There were three problems with the GOP counterassault.
First, both Joe Biden and Robert Gates, then the Pentagon chief, opposed the Osama raid based on limited intelligence—making clear it was no slam-dunk.
Second, Romney was on record as having said of bin Laden back in 2007: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
Finally, the longer the tit-for-tat went on, the more the campaign’s focus remained on the president’s singular foreign-policy achievement.
Romney seemed to recognize as much, toning down his language in a CBS interview Tuesday morning and saying that Obama deserves credit for the fateful decision.
Only one element of Tuesday’s choreographed events departed from the script. An Afghanistan station tweeted the news of Obama’s visit shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern daylight time, and it was retweeted by the website BuzzFeed. Editor in chief Ben Smith took it down after receiving a call from a White House spokesman. “Like most news organizations, we will typically defer to the White House's judgment on true security risks," Smith explained.
The New York Post also took down a report, but the Drudge Report kept the story up, with a red-type headline, for hours. White House officials denied the original report by saying the president “is not in Kabul”—which was technically accurate because he didn’t land until about 2 p.m. (A handful of White House correspondents were summoned for the trip and sworn to secrecy, as is standard practice.)
Despite the leak, Obama’s meticulously planned visit dramatically drove home the demise of bin Laden–and on that score, at least, it was mission accomplished.