If a Republican were in office right now, Osama bin Laden would still be in his compound, burning trash and slowly dying of old age. The Republican pundits who credit George W. Bush for Bin Laden’s death are peddling 100 percent bullshit. Bush, you might remember, wasn’t even looking in the right country. Not that he cared much about finding Bin Laden anyway. In a press conference on March 13, 2002, Bush said: “I don’t know where [Bin Laden] is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him… to be honest with you… I truly am not that concerned about him.” Six years later, in a July 2008 interview, Larry King asked then presidential candidate John McCain whether he would send U.S. troops into Pakistan "if you knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan." McCain said, "I'm not going to go there and here's why: because Pakistan is a sovereign nation.”
Obama never even told Pakistan we were coming.
Now Obama’s potential rivals for 2012 are struggling to figure out how to deal with the moment. Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann didn’t even mention the office of the president in their tersely worded press releases. Mitt Romney dropped the president’s title—but not his name—in what amounted to a halfhearted mumble at the end of a sentence. Only two deigned to mention the president by name: the boring former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, and poor, bitch-slapped Donald Trump, who praised his better to the skies for a “job well done.”
The jokes Obama made at Trump’s expense at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night had taken on a different meaning by Sunday night. Obama put the irrelevance of Trump’s experience into perspective by straight-facedly reporting the climax of a recent episode of Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice: “You, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.”
What none of us knew at the time was that the president had just ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. He probably knew he would be addressing the nation again soon. What he couldn’t have known was whether he’d be announcing the successful resolution of a strategic military operation the likes of which had bedeviled his predecessor for seven years, or a Bay of Pigs–style disaster resulting in the deaths of American soldiers and the escape once again of America’s boogeyman into the world at large. Even as he stood onstage mocking Trump’s tiny little life—a mocking that ruffled Trump’s feathers—Obama had bigger things in mind. Much bigger. How can Trump look anything but ridiculous after that?
Let’s be clear: This was Barack Obama’s victory. It was his cooperative-yet-firm foreign policy with Pakistan that led to the intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. It was he who said in 2008, in a debate with John McCain: “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out.” It was Obama who insisted on a surgical strike instead of a bombing in order to confirm Bin Laden’s identity should he be killed, it was Obama’s ground forces who crafted the strategy to get into the compound, and it was Obama’s order to strike.
President Obama revealed the entire Bush team to be the incompetents and dolts we always knew they were, and in doing so single-handedly destroyed the myth that Democrats are soft on national security. What will Republicans do with that? Try to run on an anti-war platform? Isolationist teabaggers may give that a whirl, but it’s more likely that mainstream Republican candidates will proceed directly to James Carville’s 1992 “It’s the economy, stupid” mantra, ignoring the foreign policy sphere for a steady diet of domestic issues. The problem there is that the Republican rallying flag—Representative Paul Ryan’s budget—shaves Medicare and Medicaid down to a nub and rewrites the American contract into something completely different than what every living American citizen has ever known. Senior citizens and left-leaning centrists won’t be comfortable with this radical agenda, and there’s simply no clear path for a Republican president without those two groups.
After Bin Laden’s death, Ben Hammersley asked on Twitter, “Ok. So *now* can we start the 21st century?” It’s a simple truth that not every president gets an opportunity to remake America. When he announced the death of Bin Laden, Obama shifted the way an entire generation of Americans view ourselves and, in so doing, provided a clear ending-point for one of the darkest decades in American history.
We understand that terrorist attacks will almost definitely happen in the future. We know that the Middle East is still a complicated and perilous place. But Obama proved that America can still do the job—and that a thoughtful progressive is as competent or better leading the military than a reactionary right-winger. Pundits had been complaining that Obama provided no coherent foreign policy or national defense strategy, that he was simply operating on a meeker version of the dunderheaded Bush doctrine. After last weekend, the Obama doctrine is becoming clearer. In sum: Don’t be an incompetent motherfucker. It’s going to be hard for any Republican to argue with that, but you can be sure that they’re gonna try.
Another dig Obama made at Trump during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner had to do with the birther conspiracies that Trump had recently reinvigorated. “But no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” the president said. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
It turned out to be a prescient joke. Already, the Republican Party, with miserable choad Andrew Breitbart in the lead, is showing signs that it doesn’t believe Bin Laden is dead. These “deathers”—most of whom were probably birthers just over a week ago—are symptoms of a deep-seated rot in the Republican Party. They are people committed to gut feelings and scare tactics over facts. The real reason George W. Bush was so uninterested in catching Osama bin Laden was because the Qaeda leader was a useful concept for conservatives, a fright mask to slip on when the American people needed to be put back in their place. Dick Cheney wore the Bin Laden mask at every opportunity, hinting at secret disasters that were always right around the corner if Democrats ever took a leading role in government again. Bush would tell spooky Bin Laden stories to get what he wanted from the American people. So now Republicans are trying to dig Bin Laden out of the grave and wheel his corpse around, Weekend at Bernie’s–style. It’s the only trick they have left.
There will always be people gullible enough to eat whatever plate of horseshit the Republican media will feed them, of course. And some people are racist enough to deny any accomplishment to a successful black president, no matter how tortured the logic gets. But when Obama successfully nabbed Bin Laden, he sapped the power from the scary campfire stories that Republicans tell. It marked the end of a very particular war of terror perpetrated against America over the last 10 years.