Political Animal


May 02, 2012 11:10 AM The Real Context of Romney’s bin Laden Remarks

By Paul Glastris

Has the Obama campaign been unfair in its suggestion that Mitt Romney would not have gone after bin Laden the way the president did? Many pundits have said so, and Romney himself complained about it yesterday.

At issue is a web ad the Obama campaign put out last week that contains a quote Romney gave to AP reporter Liz Sidoti in 2007: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” The charge is that the quote was taken out of context. “The valid Romney observation that defeating al Qaeda would require a comprehensive strategy, not one limited to hunting down a single man, got distorted by the Obama scriptwriters into a hesitation to pursue Bin Laden” writes former Bush adviser Peter Feaver. Politifact makes the same argument: “The Obama campaign is right that Romney used those words, but by cherry-picking them, it glosses over comments describing his broader approach. Romney said he wanted to pursue all of al-Qaida, not just its leaders.”

But that is not what Romney said. Here’s the transcript of the AP interview that the Romney campaign itself put out:

LIZ SIDOTI: “Why haven’t we caught bin Laden in your opinion?”

GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: “I think, I wouldn’t want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He’s one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He’s by no means the only leader. It’s a very diverse group—Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that.”

SIDOTI: “But would the world be safer if bin laden were caught?”

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: “Yes, but by a small percentage increase—a very insignificant increase in safety by virtue of replacing bin Laden with someone else. Zarqawi—we celebrated the killing of Zarqawi, but he was quickly replaced. Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is—it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates.”

Note that Romney’s not saying he wants a wider effort against al Qaida. He’s saying he wants a wider war against the “global Jihadist effort” including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. A few days later, in an interview on MSNBC when he attempted to walk back the “heaven and earth line” he doubled down on his commitment to confront the “worldwide jihadist network.” He was thus aligning himself with the wider war that the neo-conservatives called for and the Bush administration pursued, and he was clearly criticizing Obama and the many Democrats who called for rejecting that wider war in favor if a narrower focus on al Qaida.

This is not a small distinction. It is the essence of the decade-long dispute between Republicans and Democrats over how to respond to 9/11. Republicans have generally favored a broad “war against terrorism” or “Islamo-fascism.” Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, have favored a narrower war against al Qaida and have long complained that the broader GOP strategy was folly—because it committed us to fighting terrorist groups that haven’t directly attacked us, stirred up resentments in the greater Muslim world and, most of all, led the Bush administration to take its eyes off the ball in Afghanistan, which is how bin Laden was able to escape to Pakistan. Bush himself said of bin Laden “I truly am not that concerned about him,” and while the military and intelligence agencies were actively trying to find the al Qaida leader during the entirety of Bush’s term, and those efforts contributed to his ultimate capture, it was clearly not the president’s highest priority.

The real “context” of that 2007 quote, then, was Romney aligning himself with the Bush position of downplaying both bin Laden and al Qaida in favor of a broader war on the “worldwide jihadist movement” and against Obama’s call for a more intense and focused effort aimed at bin Laden and al Qaida.

The real question, then, is not whether Romney would have given the order to send in the Seals once bin Laden’s hideout was known. Maybe he would have, maybe he wouldn’t have. The real question is whether he would have chosen, as Obama promised and did, to redouble efforts to find bin Laden. If we take Romney at his word, context and all, he clearly would not have. And if that redoubling of effort was what was required to find bin Laden—and by all indications it was—then Romney would never have had the chance to give the order, and bin Laden would still be alive.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • SadOldVet on May 02, 2012 11:16 AM:

    Politi(fact) again...

    Two republican lies = a truth

    One democrat truth = a lie

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on May 02, 2012 11:23 AM:

    The thing overlooked by most is that Obamo chose to raid the compound , increasing the risk of failure, when they could have taken him out with a missile . The raid captured all the intel spending 20 minutes of the raid as they scooped up computers , flash drives and paper. Imagine what this did to help them dismantle Al Queda's network.
    Obama is tough and has proved it.

  • boatboy_srq on May 02, 2012 11:29 AM:

    Shorter Romney: We have always been at war with Eastasia.

    The Romney campaign, guided by the neocons and the End-Times-Are-a-Comin set, are hell-bent on entering the perpetual, unwinnable war - either because it'll keep them in power indefinitely and enrich their MilInd constituents, or because that's the only way to summon Teh Messiah. Treating terrorism as a precise campaign means that it's possible to defeat it; this is anathema to volk who demand the Last Great Struggle Against Satan and think that Washington is the place from which to launch it.

  • howard on May 02, 2012 11:29 AM:

    it's always helpful to discover whom you never have to read again, and any member of the commentariat who thinks this is unfair of obama joins the list!

    the key point is that obama changed policy and it produced results.

  • dalloway on May 02, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Okay, Mitt. You want a worldwide war against those jihad-waging terrorists, every last one of 'em, even if they haven't attacked us. How are you going to win it while simultaneously balancing the budget and slashing taxes for the wealthy? Huh, Mitt? How?

  • Rip on May 02, 2012 11:37 AM:

    You're overthinking this, the only real context of any Romney quote is that he felt it was the politically expedient thing to say at the time.

    I've no doubt that one of the reasons Mitt can lie so unashamedly is that he really doesn't recall what he said in the past, not having any commitment to the position at the time.

  • Epicurus on May 02, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Then thank FSM that Romney was not the President, and we will never know what he might have done. Let's hope that the U.S. electorate is not so stupid as to toy with the idea of giving this liar the keys to the Oval Office. Oh, by the way, he's not just a flip-flopper; he's also a member of a dangerous religious cult! Woo hoo!!

  • Peter C on May 02, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Republicans will say ANYTHING to try to downplay their obvious failures in foreign policy. They don't mind lying to the American public; if they stopped lying they could barely speak at all.

    They never defend; they only attack. They never build; they only destroy. They work only for their own narrow self-interests. They've adopted a 'free market' greed-based rubric for politics where they participate to maximize their personal gain, rejecting the very idea of 'public service'. To serve their narrow self-interests, they gleefully deceive their constitutents and obstruct those in their districts who would vote against them.

  • retr2327 on May 02, 2012 12:06 PM:

    You're missing a simpler response: Romney said that killing (or catching) Bin Laden would only result in a "very insignificant" increase in safety.

  • Al B Tross on May 02, 2012 12:11 PM:

    "Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is—it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates.”

    What he just said was he want to kill millions, not just the few leaders. He advocated using a broad aproach (nuclear?), not a focused effort.(Seal Team Six)

    The follow up question to his statement should have been, "so, do you want to kill all Muslims, or just a few million?"

  • emjayay on May 02, 2012 12:17 PM:

    What Rip said. Except he probably remembers everything. He just doesn't care about any truth, just what he thinks will work now. He is a product of always being super wealthy, being a Mormon missionary, and years as a corporate raider.

  • imjustsayin on May 02, 2012 12:35 PM:

    Oh please, Mitt give it up. You were all over the map (literally) regarding what you would, or would have not done with bin Laden. Obama articulated clearly and precisely what he would do to get bin Laden given the intel AND DID IT - PERIOD, END OF STORY. Time to move on Mitt about how you would have gotten rid of Gaddafi without using any of our ground troops firing a shot, let alone suffering any American causalities. Like Clinton in Bosnia, Democratic presidents (having learned from Vietnam era mistakes coupled with new hi-tech arms) focus on an Allied or special-op surgical strike approach to minimize putting our bravest and finest in harms way while achieving the same military goals (unless one inherits two wars). Republican's favor "war" presidents with all of their less-than-a-slam-dunk intel, broader global initiatives that prolong conflicts with high American cost with their guns-a-blazing approach.

  • Crissa on May 02, 2012 12:44 PM:

    Seems to me that 'getting one man' is part of a greater war on terrorism. Letting him go kinda showed that we were ineffectual and didn't care about getting our man.

    Also seems like Obama is pursuing violent extremists everywhere. Even Cleveland.

  • ckelly on May 02, 2012 12:53 PM:

    it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy

    Millions? This goes to @boatboy_srq comment regarding perpetual, unwinnable war. Great for the military-industrial complex but the rest of the World and America - not so much.

    Romney is basically willing to wage war on all of Islam, all Muslims. I agree with @Rip this was 2007 so Romney's stance was simply aligning with the winds of that time. He reserves the right to shake the Etch-a-Sketch at any time.

  • 2Manchu on May 02, 2012 12:59 PM:

    I can think of 2,977 very good reasons why bringing Osama bin Laden to justice was worth moving Heaven and Earth.

    Fuck you, Romney.

  • exlibra on May 02, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Politifact makes the same argument: “The Obama campaign is right that Romney used those words, but by cherry-picking them, it glosses over comments describing his broader approach. -- Ed Kilgore

    Well, Obama had a very good teacher, when it came to taking words out of context and giving them a different meaning -- The Great Mittbot himself. What's more, Mittbot's lie was worse -- not even a grain of truth in it, unlike in Obama's ad (Mitt's ad got "pants on fire" from Politifact). *And*, IIRC, when charged with the lie, Mittbot defended it on the the grounds that anything goes in a political campaign.


    Sauce for the goose, dahlink Mitt, sauce for the goose...

  • exlibra on May 02, 2012 1:01 PM:

    Oops! Apologies. The article was by Glastris, not Kilgore.

  • Tomm Undergod on May 02, 2012 1:04 PM:

    You're not the only one lately who has said Dumbo never gave up the search for Bin Laden, but soldiers were in hot pursuit when the hunt was called off, and-- correct me if this is inaccurate-- BushCo shut down the special Find Bin Laden unit well before his catastrophic presidency ended, and Obomba had to have it started up again. Right? If any of those denying Dumbo never gave up can demonstrate their claim, maybe now would be a good time to do so.

  • Matt on May 02, 2012 1:38 PM:

    This site has quoted Romney as also saying that he would not approve a strike inside Pakistan's borders. Why is that being used to push back?

  • karen marie on May 02, 2012 3:08 PM:

    And if I remember correctly, it was directly as a result of Bush administration policies and "diplomacy" that Hamas gained power in Palestine. That was another of their seriously effed up failures.

  • LindaW on May 02, 2012 8:31 PM:

    How can the Romney campaign seriously use the "taken out of context" defense, after their ad using Obama quoting McCain to seem like Obama was saying something?

    O, the hypocrisy!

  • Heckblazer on May 02, 2012 10:39 PM:

    Just to underscore how wrong-headed Romney's strategy is, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. If you don't believe me try looking for it on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations: