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Bin Laden anniversary a reminder of Obama's foreign successes

Republicans complain about politicizing of fight against al-Qaida

By Jules Witcover

5:25 PM EDT, May 1, 2012

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We are a nation that loves anniversaries — of births, weddings, deaths and everything else under the sun. We're now celebrating the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden and arguing whether President Barack Obama, who gave the order, deserves political credit for it.

The Democrats, from Vice President Joe Biden on down, say yes. Mr. Biden has suggested as a campaign slogan: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." Envious heads on Madison Avenue must be nodding in the affirmative.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are crying foul. Mitt Romney adviser and former GOP National Chairman Ed Gillespie wailed on one of Sunday morning's television shows over the self-congratulation. Imagine trying to make political hay out of an event wildly approved of by the American people.

The White House even lifted the curtain on the super-secret Situation Room — the one reigned over by Mr. Obama, not the one run by Wolf Blitzer on CNN — to revisit the tense moments. NBC television cameras were admitted to show where the president and other top administration figures sat glued to a real-time video updates of the daring mission that nailed bin Laden in his lair in Pakistan. Principals, including Mr. Obama, were interviewed by NBC anchor Brian Williams on how they felt during that intense episode.

It was intriguing stuff, followed up by the administration's top al-Qaidasleuth, John Brennan, appearing on television applauding the accomplishment of the Navy SEALs who conducted the raid — and, inferentially, Mr. Obama for giving the go-ahead. The president told a news conference, however, "I hardly think that you've seen any excessive celebration taking place here."

Yet the fact remains that with that one decision a year ago, Mr. Obama took a giant step toward diminishing the longtime Republican rap against the Democrats that they are soft on foreign policy. In one swoop, the mission that killed bin Laden countered the Democrats' nightmare of more than three decades ago, when Jimmy Carter ordered the rescue of American hostages in Iran. That effort ended in calamity in the desert, only reinforcing his party's and his own image of futility.

The successful strike that killed bin Laden also offered a commendable contrast to Mr. Obama's predecessor, who claimed his 2003 invasion of Iraq was to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. Not to mention President George W. Bush's aircraft-carrier landing, during which he boasted that the combat mission there was over — when the end was not nearly in sight.

Politics being what it is — accentuating the positive to your side's advantage and peddling the negative to undercut the opposition — it should be no surprise that the anniversary of bin Laden's death in a presidential election year should become fodder for both sides.

More significant as a measure of foreign policy success or failure has been Mr. Obama's pointed reversal of Mr. Bush's detour off the road of collective action and onto the path of unilateralism. Mr. Bush's go-it-alone invasion of Iraq, thinly veiled by a "coalition of the willing" he built with coercive material enticements, ushered in a sorry chapter in American foreign policy.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, instead of using the elimination of bin Laden to proclaim a new American leadership in world affairs, thereafter elected to play a subordinate role in the successful campaign led by the British and French to depose Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Doing so put the United States back on course as a partner in multilateral responses to threats to peace in select corners of the globe, rather than continuing to play the world's policeman.

With his efforts to lift America's economy out of its doldrums yielding insufficient results, Mr. Obama is wise politically to make the most of his shifted foreign policy course, also seen in his adamant if slow determination to withdraw from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Americans clearly are depressed over joblessness at home, housing foreclosures and high prices at the gas pump. But they have good reason to feel better about Mr. Obama's conduct of foreign policy and to understand his bragging about it, in his fashion, in an election year.

Jules Witcover, a syndicated columnist, is a former longtime writer for The Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.