Conservatives have attempted to credit George W. Bush for President Barack Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden in various ways, from exaggerating the role of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to praising Bush’s unsuccessful seven year attempt to do so.
Today, Ross Douthat offers the latest version of this argument: That killing Bin Laden constitutes “the most visible proof” so far of Bush-Obama continuity in matters of national security:
The death of Osama bin Laden, in a raid that operationalized Bush’s famous “dead or alive” dictum, offered the most visible proof of this continuity. But the more important evidence of the Bush-Obama convergence lay elsewhere, in developments from last week that didn’t merit screaming headlines, because they seemed routine rather than remarkable.
This is an odd formulation that ignores that the hunt for bin Laden predated the Bush administration — remember that conservatives accused President Bill Clinton of “wagging the dog” when authorizing missile strikes against al Qaeda in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet Douthat does not praise Clinton in making this argument about “continuity,” because doing so would acknowledge that any president, regardless of party, would regard it as part of his duty to defend American citizens from terrorism.
While there are indeed many examples of Obama continuing Bush-era policies to the frustration of liberals, killing bin Laden is not one of them. Rather, Obama’s focus on bin Laden represents a departure from his predecessor, who had decided shortly after 9/11 that bin Laden was “just a person who’s been marginalized,” just a small part of a much larger battle. As Michael Hirsh wrote last week, Obama rejected the Bush approach that “conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah,” replacing it with “with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.”
During the 2008 election, Bush mocked Obama for asserting he would target bin Laden if he was hiding in Pakistan. GOP presidential candidate John McCain attacked Obama as “confused and inexperienced” for saying so.” It is a bit rich to regard the results of an operation that Bush and McCain would have opposed as “continuity” with the prior administration. There are a number of disturbing continuities between Bush and Obama on national security, but the singular focus on bin Laden isn’t one of them.
What is notable however, is that the major distinction between Obama and Bush that has formed the basis of GOP criticism of Obama — the President’s rejection of torture — has proven so decisively wrongheaded. Conservatives attempting to attribute successfully killing bin Laden to torture are merely attempting to take credit for what President Bush pointedly failed to do. Far from yielding the necessary intelligence, the two al Qaeda suspects who were waterboarded pointedly resisted identifying the courier whose activities lead to the U.S. discovering Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.
One cannot discount how shattering the Obama administration’s killing of Bin Laden has been to the self-image of conservatives who have convinced themselves of that the fight against al Qaeda hinges not just on torture, but on how many times the president says the word “terrorism,” or on Obama’s refusal to engage in juvenile expressions of American toughness.
While we’re far from the moment where terrorism ceases to be a threat, what torture apologists fear most now is a future in which al Qaeda is destroyed without the U.S. embracing the war-on-terror “dark side” that’s become central to their identity. Indeed, having rejected torture, Obama has nevertheless lead the country to its greatest victory in the fight against al Qaeda.