WASHINGTON — As slogans go, President Barack Obama’s promise of the “light of a new day” in Afghanistan isn’t nearly as catchy as the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln the day President George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq in 2003.
One was jubilant, conveying triumph — prematurely so, as more than 4,000 U.S. combat deaths over the next several years demonstrated. The other, more restrained, optimistically cites progress toward an ultimate victory over the terrorists who attacked the United States more than a decade ago.
Yet the take-away messages fit the political circumstances of the president in office at the time. Then it was Bush prosecuting an Iraq war that was intensely controversial from the outset.
Now it’s Obama seeking re-election in a campaign against Mitt Romney that is anything but certain, polishing his credentials as commander in chief.
The polls all say the economy will be the overarching issue this fall, but Obama can hardly be blamed for wanting the singular triumph of his term — Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces — to gain plenty of attention.
After all, the death of the terrorist leader got equal billing with the slowly recovering economy in Vice President Joe Biden’s own suggested campaign slogan: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
As a political strategy after three years in office, blaming Bush for the war in Afghanistan is probably not any better than trying to saddle him with responsibility for the economy.
Still, Obama chose to reprise his 2008 campaign criticism of Bush’s war policy in his brief 10-minute address from Bagram Air Field on Tuesday night.
“Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated,” he said, beginning his account neutrally before pivoting.
“In 2002, (Osama) bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan,” this president said, referring to the battle at Tora Bora. “America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq.”
But over the past three years, he said, referring to his own time in office: “The tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built a strong Afghan security force. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.”
Romney decided he wanted no part of it.
In a written statement issued as Air Force One carried Obama homeward, he said he was pleased the president had returned to Afghanistan, and that the troops and the American people deserved to hear from him what is at stake in the war. “Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation’s security,” he said.
It was a different Romney earlier in the week, struggling to outmaneuver Obama in the run-up to the anniversary of the bin Laden’s death.
In fact, Obama and Biden had set him up over the course of a week.
“We know what President Obama did,” Biden said in New York last week, referring to the decision to send Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. “We can’t say for certain what Gov. Romney would have done.”
An Obama campaign web video soon followed, including a quote from a 2007 Romney interview in which he said it was not worth “moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
Answering on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie said the president’s team had gone a step too far. “I think if President Obama had said — even though he said we wouldn’t spike the football at the time of this momentous occasion regarding Osama bin Laden — had said, ‘I’m proud of this,’ I think people would have said he should be proud of this. …
“It’s the extra iteration. It’s the attack that Gov. Romney wouldn’t have done it,” Gillespie said.
On Monday, Romney himself answered.
“Of course” he would have ordered bin Laden killed, he said. “Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” Intentionally or not, that resurrected memories of a Democratic president who once ordered a rescue mission for American hostages held in Iran that ended in disaster.
From the East Room of the White House, Obama challenged his rival’s truthfulness as well as his national security chops.
“I assume that people meant what they said when they said it,” he said, referring to Romney’s 2007 interview. “That’s been at least my practice. … 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.”