The anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden has become an occasion for the two parties to fight over whether it’s appropriate for President Obama to use the event in his campaign. The case against it, being pressed by Mitt Romney, his Republican allies, and even Arianna Huffington, is fairly intuitive: Everybody is for killing Osama bin Laden, right? Well, actually, no: In 2008, Obama staked out a hawkish position on bin Laden, and Republicans, including Romney, assailed him as recklessly belligerent. He may not have opposed the result, but he certainly opposed the method.
That would seem to be an open-and-shut case for the legitimacy of using this as a political issue, would it not? Yet something about it feels wrong. Whatever Romney said, it’s hard to believe that killing Osama bin Laden is a policy issue that actually divides the two parties, and especially in a way that leaves the generally more hawkish Republican Party on the dovish side. But, however odd it feels, this is actually the case. It’s one of the anomalies of the Bush-era foreign-policy debate, a counterintuitive divide between the two parties that the public has never quite assimilated.
In the immediate aftermath, George W. Bush appeared at Ground Zero, bonded with the firefighters and rescue workers there, promised to bring the terrorists who did it to justice, and established himself as a kind of national father figure. At that point his authority as terrorist slayer was unquestioned and unquestionable.
At the same time, his administration was already directing its focus away from al Qaeda. The neoconservatives who dominated the administration’s foreign policy believed before the attacks that states, not non-state actors like a band of terrorists, were the thing to focus on. They continued to maintain this after 9/11. A Charles Krauthammer column written a few weeks after the attacks neatly explicated the neoconservative belief that governments were all that mattered. (“Searching Afghan caves for bin Laden is precisely the trap he would wish” us to fall into. Terrorists cannot operate without the succor and protection of governments.)
Bush did send troops into Afghanistan, but utterly botched the climactic moment, when bin Laden and al Qaeda were surrounded in the mountains of Tora Bora, and we allowed them to escape into Pakistan. (The failure occurred due to a blend of general incompetence and the Bush administration’s decision to redirect needed military resources toward Iraq.) By March of 2002, Bush was publicly explaining that it didn’t really matter very much whether we captured bin Laden, because all that mattered was whether or not bin Laden benefited from open state sponsorship:
Q: But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I — I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.
But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became — we shoved him out more and more on the margins.
This actually was the major ideological divide of the Bush era. Democrats believed the Republican focus on state sponsorship was mistaken. John Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008, critiqued Bush for weakening the focus on al Qaeda in order to attack Iraq. When figures like Romney and McCain were scoffing at Obama promises to capture bin Laden even if it meant violating the sovereignty of our nominal ally Pakistan, they were signaling partisan and ideological fidelity with the Bush administration. The Bush-Republican position was that it was not worth antagonizing an ally to pursue the symbolic goal of capturing or killing bin Laden.
This would have been a hard position for the Bush administration to defend, and it avoided having to defend it publicly. Instead Bush relied upon the elemental appeal of his post-9/11 aura. The argument he made was simple: He was strong, Democrats were weak. He would protect us against what he called, in his usual one-syllable pronunciation, the "tearsts."
And the reason Democrats, and many members of the media, expressed indignation over Bush’s use of 9/11 was that he employed primal fear in the place of any policy argument. Here is one famous ad, “Wolves,” that Bush used against Kerry in 2004.
Technically speaking, there is a policy dispute underlying this ad, but it is a pathetically meager one. The ad assails Kerry for a 1994 proposal he made to, as part of a broader deficit reduction measure, slightly trim intelligence spending, a proposal that had bipartisan support. That 1994 bill was the best Bush could do to make the case that Kerry was less serious than Bush about fighting terrorism. Which is to say, it was almost entirely a trumped-up argument. The policy dispute was the barest pretext to put forward an argument based on emotion, to conjure the post-9/11 aura as a cover to obscure the fact that Bush was not actually very tough on the terrorists at all.
It makes perfect sense that Romney would appear today to (sort of) hand out pizza to firefighters with Rudy Giuliani. He is attempting, like Bush, to move the issue out of the realm of a policy dispute, where voters compare the positions and actions of the two parties, and into the realm of elemental cultural politics. There, fighting terrorism is more about patriotism and cultural identification with the values of working-class men. When Republicans now say they want the killing of Osama bin Laden to remain out of politics, what they mean is that they want to the counterterrorism policy debate to be outside of politics, but the cultural politics of 9/11 to remain very much in it.