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'Even Jimmy Carter' Made a Daring Choice 'Even Jimmy Carter' Made a Daring Choice

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Opinion

'Even Jimmy Carter' Made a Daring Choice

April 30, 2012

Mitt Romney informs us that the raid that took out Osama bin Laden one year ago was no big deal, because "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."

Grrrrr.

Necessary disclosure: I worked for Jimmy Carter and admire his intentions, his character, and many of his achievements, although I am not usually considered an uncritical booster of his record as president. 

But let's remember:

1) Jimmy Carter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent 10 years in the uniformed service of his country. As far as I can tell, this is 10 years more than the cumulative service of members of the Romney clan. Obviously you don't have to be a veteran to have judgments about military policy or criticisms of others' views. But when it comes to casual slurs about someone else's strength or resolve, you want to be careful, as a guy on the sidelines, sounding this way about people who have served.



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2) Jimmy Carter did indeed make a gutsy go/no-go call. It turned out to be a tactical, strategic, and political disaster. You can read the blow-by-blow in Mark Bowden's retrospective of "The Desert One Debacle." With another helicopter, the mission to rescue U.S. diplomats then captive in Tehran might well have succeeded -- and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been reelected. Full discussion another time, but I think he's right. (Even with the fiasco, and a miserable "stagflation" economy, the 1980 presidential race was very close until the very end.) 

But here's the main point about Carter. Deciding to go ahead with that raid was a close call. Carter's own secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, had opposed the raid and handed in his resignation even before the results were known. And it was a daring call -- a choice in favor of a risky possible solution to a festering problem, knowing that if it went wrong there would be bad consequences all around, including for Carter himself. So if you say "even Jimmy Carter" to mean "even a wimp," as Romney clearly did, you're showing that you don't know the first thing about the choice he really made.

3) Precisely because of the consequences of Carter's failure, President Obama was the more daring in making his go/no-go decision. That's the case I argued last year, and nothing I've learned since then changes my view. As a college student, Obama had seen a marginally popular Democratic president come to ruin because he approved a helicopter-based secret mission into hostile Middle Eastern terrain. Obama went ahead with a helicopter-based secret mission into nominally "allied" territory, also with huge potential for trouble if things had gone wrong.

4)  And while the Osama killing reflected a decade's worth of intelligence and effort from people of both parties, and of no party, it happened on Obama's watch. Is there any doubt that if it had happened on President Bush's, or on a President John McCain's, it would have been the centerpiece of every political speech and commercial? Was there a single speech in the Republicans' 2004 convention -- in New York -- that did not begin and end with a reference to 9/11, or the removal of Saddam Hussein?

So: Obviously the administration will want to remind voters that Osama bin Laden is gone, and obviously the Republicans will want to minimize the political significance of that fact. All fine. But not "even Jimmy Carter." I hope that the crack was a scripted attack line, rather than being yet another spontaneous glimpse of the way Mitt Romney feels and thinks. "Even" Jimmy Carter made a daring choice, and paid the price.

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