The War Against a War President

In their attempts to characterize Obama as "weak" on defense, Republicans face an uphill battle

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Jim Young / Retuers

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at campaign rally at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, Sept. 14, 2012.

Some things, at least, never change.

More than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy was so worried about appearing soft on national security issues in his campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon that he railed against a purported—and inaccurate—”missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s success in portraying the Republicans as weak was to be the exception that proved the rule of ensuing presidential elections: the GOP would never again allow the Democrats an advantage on national-security issues.

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Last week, in the wake of the anniversary of September 11, the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues, and the rising tide of anti-American violence in the Arab world, leaders of the Republican Party past and present have stepped forward in an attempt to reassert the familiar narrative that Democrats cannot be trusted with the security of the nation. In a statement on the evening of the initial violence in Benghazi and in Cairo, Mitt Romney went straight for the “disgraceful” card. Here is an Associated Press fact-check by Kasie Hunt of Romney’s overnight remarks:

The gunfire at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had barely ceased when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seriously mischaracterized what had happened in a statement accusing President Barack Obama of “disgraceful” handling of violence there and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

“The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said in a statement first emailed to reporters at 10:09 p.m. Eastern time, under the condition it not be published until midnight. In fact, neither a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day nor a later statement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered sympathy for attackers. The statement from the Cairo Embassy had condemned anti-Muslim religious incitement before the embassy walls were breached. In her statement, issued minutes before Romney’s, Clinton had offered the administration’s first response to the violence in Libya, explicitly condemning the attack there and confirming the death of a State Department official.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today,” Clinton said in a written statement received by the Associated Press at 10:08 p.m. “As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss.”

As Romney learned the hard way with this failed assault on the president’s leadership, facts, as John Adams noted long ago, are stubborn things.

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Another GOP attempt at reasserting partisan ownership over foreign-policy hawkishness came when former Vice President Dick Cheney minimized President Obama’s role in ordering the successful 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden. “Those who deserve the credit are the men and women in our military and intelligence communities who worked for many years to track him down,” said Cheney. “They are the ones who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.”

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That is of course true. It is also true, however, that the president made the decision to strike and deserves credit in the same measure as he would have suffered censure had the mission failed. As Dick Cheney knows better than anyone alive, executive leadership in the presidential office is an essential (some, like Cheney, would argue the essential) element in the governance and security of the nation. One need only think of the ferocity of the Republican attacks on President Obama had the bin Laden raid gone awry to appreciate the enduring truth of the adage Kennedy cited in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs: while victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

Republican efforts to portray Barack Obama as weak on national security are predictable and probably doomed to fail. This isn’t 2004, when John Kerry’s presidential campaign was gravely wounded by attacks on his (heroic) military record. We’re still probably in for six weeks or so of stale assaults on a president who’s been an effective warrior against terror—assaults that may grow all the more shrill because Obama’s opponents know the truth, even if they won’t admit it.

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