Even before President Obama boarded Air Force One and landed in Afghanistan under the cover of night for an unannounced visit Tuesday, there was plenty of sniping going on about whether Obama was exploiting the killing of Osama bin Laden for political gain. The president’s campaign had earlier launched a video, narrated by Bill Clinton, spotlighting Obama’s decision to pull the trigger in Afghanistan and criticizing Romney’s past statements about going after the al Qaeda leader. The surprise trip only stepped up the protests.
But let’s examine the issue from a leadership point of view. On the one hand, any president that does not promote a signature achievement of his time in office is not going to stay in the job very long. The fact is that Obama did make a difficult, risky decision — his own vice president and secretary of Defense cautioned him to wait. And it resulted in an outcome both he and his predecessor had tried to reach for years. Had George W. Bush wanted to commemorate a politically helpful moment in time, he’d be cloaking himself in military images, too (which, in fact, he did).
And yet, there is plenty of caution to be taken when trumpeting one’s achievements. Humility is an admirable trait in any leader, and the Obama campaign could have probably scored just as many points by quietly going about the week — all while making a point that they were not making a point about the anniversary. They made matters worse with their initial, and thoroughly ridiculous, ruse that the trip to Afghanistan was only coincidental to being one year after bin Laden’s death.
But to me, the real test of how the president handled the anniversary of bin Laden’s death isn’t whether or not he was promoting the day too much. Rather, it’s how much credit he gave to the people who did the most risky work and how much he used the opportunity to set out a vision for the future.
On the first, I think he did fine. Some may argue that the campaign video narrated by Clinton put too much emphasis on the president, rather than the troops. And some SEALS are apparently starting to gripe or question whether all the talk about the unit puts them in danger. But in his speech during his actual visit and in remarks made to troops, the president made pains to thank the men and women in uniform and give them credit where credit was due. “Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places,” he said. Adding that, in the faces of our soldiers, “we see what is best in ourselves and our country.” While he took credit for setting the goal, he did not take credit for the killing: “One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.”
On the latter point about setting out a vision, however, the president could have done more. His speech didn’t provide many specifics. His exit strategy, some opined, wasn’t well explained. And signing up for 10 more years of support and aid in Afghanistan is hardly the inspiring message many Americans, frustrated by our continued presence there, want to hear.
President Obama’s supporters and opponents can snipe all they want about whether the efforts to call attention to the anniversary is plain politics or unseemly leadership. But the real question they should be asking is how much the president is giving credit to the troops, and how well he’s mapping out a strategy for ending their involvement in Afghanistan.
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