Commentary Magazine


What If Bush Did It? (Bin Laden Edition)

Among the gallows-humor consolations floating around on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, there was the hope that Democratic politicians, media sycophants, and liberal experts would now find it in their hearts to support American victories abroad. Rather than twisting themselves into argumentative pretzels to explain—inter alia—why the surge failed or why Libya’s nuclear disarmament was inevitable or why Bush’s coalition of the willing was unilateralism or why killing terrorists generated disproportionate blowback, they would at least feign patriotism. Good enough, the theory went.

And wouldn’t you know it, it worked! Even before Obama was sworn in, the media narrative about Bin Laden had already flipped. During the Bush years, Bin Laden’s anti-American videos had been framed as sophisticated hearts-and-minds gambits read “calmly into the camera” by a man who looked “older but relatively healthy,” aimed at a President notorious for reading My Pet Goat (seriously, CNN dropped that tidbit into a story about a Bin Laden videotape). But when Bin Laden published nearly identical criticisms of Obama, the AP decided that the rantings were evidence that the Al Qaeda leader was “worried” about the strength of Obama’s foreign policy (seriously, that was the AP headline).

Fast forward to last night, and it worked again! Instead of denying that a victory had been won, the left was satisfied with sniping at conservatives. Rep. Gary Ackerman went on CNN to say that “this is the ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment President Bush only fantasized about.” “Mission Accomplished,” mocking President Bush, actually became a trending topic on Twitter. The Huffington Post ran with Obama: The Man Who Got the Job Done. Anderson Cooper channeled the melodrama of the chattering classes by asking if anyone found spontaneous renditions of the national anthem moving, saying self-importantly, “I do.”

Now imagine how last night would have played out, and how today would be playing out, if a Republican president in today’s political environment had dispatched the special forces that ended Bin Laden.

Feverish liberal conspiracy theorists would be beside themselves. “I question the timing” posts would dominate the liberal blogscape, with the theory being that Bin Laden’s capture was meant to distract the public from the President’s about-to-reach-a-tipping-point poll numbers or his about-to-definitively-fail Libya policy. Andrew Sullivan would be able to recycle his posts about Bush’s October Surprise that never happened. We could have gone in before, the argument would run, since we’d known about the compound for months. Or we should have gone in later, commentators would opine, since waiting would have allowed us us to collect intelligence while keeping Bin Laden bottled up.

The Truthers who make up more than half of the Democratic party would declare that either U.S. special forces didn’t shoot Bin Laden—why else dispose of the body in the ocean by 2:00 am ET—or that they intentionally killed him because he would have blown the lid off the 9/11 conspiracy if captured. After all, the Navy Seals took no injuries in the 40 minute raid. Why didn’t they just corner bin Laden and wait until he ran out of bullets? Or overwhelm him and take him from behind?

Media commentators would wring their hands about the flag waving and “USA! USA!” chanting that happened in front of the White House and Ground Zero. A bullet had just been put into a man’s head, and no matter how evil he was, weren’t these outbursts of patriotism somewhat macabre? Keep in mind that “flag waving patriotism” was until recently equivalent to exhibitionist jingoism in some corners of the sophisticated left (in other corners it still is).

Liberal public intellectuals would insist that the President’s speech was reckless. They would sketch how it’s dangerous to have a President making calls for national unity, as Obama did at the beginning and end of his speech, with violence being the rally-round-the-flag trigger. They would specifically focus on how Obama emphasized his personal role in ordering the attack, explaining that such rhetorical moves “naturalize” wartime presidencies. There would obviously be something about dog whistle politics.

Armchair liberal foreign-policy experts would note that Bin Laden had been functionally contained for years without Internet or telephone access. Slightly more sophisticated liberals would make same argument, except they would oh-so-cleverly draw an analogy to sanctions that had put Saddam Hussein “in a box” before the liberation of Iraq. Key to the sneering about misplaced priorities would have been the President’s statement about making bin Laden’s capture or death “the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda.” Derision would have been the response to the President’s statement that “the death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date” against Al Qaeda, and doubly so for the official position that “the death . . . marks the single greatest victory in the U.S.-led campaign to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda.” And that’s before they would get to any analysis about Al Qaeda’s itself not being a pressing threat, which has been a liberal talking point for every year since 2003, with the exception of that two-year window when Obama was blustering about how the real war was in Afghanistan.

And while all of these are obviously counterfactuals that can never be tested, does anybody really believe that the left would be celebrating with such enthusiasm if Bush or a Republican successor was President? And if it’s even close, doesn’t that make the anti-Bush victory laps being run by liberal politicians and journalists—in addition to Ackerman, blogger JustKarl has assembled dozens of examples from some of the left’s “leading reality-basedlights—especially grating? Being a partisan hack just makes you a partisan hack. But spending eight years building the absolute dumbest pretexts for anti-Bush outrage, and insisting all the while that those pretexts were actually sophisticated principles about military strategy and democratic deliberation, and then ignoring those principles while acting like taunting schoolchildren—that seems to be something else entirely.

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