Fallows Barbecues Romney on Carter Slur

In his reaction to reminders of his 2007 statement suggesting a pursuit of Osama bin Laden was a waste of time and money, Mitt Romney suggested the decision to pull the trigger on the operation was such a no-brainer that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”

This got the attention of Washington Monthly alumnus (and former Carter speechwriter) James Fallows, who took Mitt to the woodshed in a column for The Atlantic:

Jimmy Carter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent ten years in the uniformed service of his country. As far as I can tell, this is ten years more than the cumulative service of all 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.

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 Teheran might well have succeeded — and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been re-elected. 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.

Since Romney in particular and Republicans generally keep trying to make this election a rerun of 1980, they’d probably do well to get their facts a little straighter about Jimmy Carter (and while they are at it, about Ronald Reagan the serial tax-hiker).

UPDATE: At Ten Miles Square, Mark Kleiman also gives Romney a good roasting:

The only reason I can think of for Romney to say what he said is that the statement, as he made it, is obviously false, and Romney is addicted to lying. We know what Jimmy Carter would have done, because we know what he actually did do, under parallel circumstances: allow himself to be talked into going in without enough resources, risking having to scrub the mission if three out of eight helicopters failed (compared to a predicted two out of eight). Obama, by contrast, personally insisted on what turned out to be the essential extra chopper going into Abbotabad.

Moreover, of course, while making the final call was indeed dramatic, the key moves that Obama took – and Bush didn’t take – involved putting in motion the machinery that got us to the place where the final call was there to be made. Obama got bin Laden because Obama wanted to get bin Laden. There’s no evidence on the record that any of the Republicans – Bush, McCain, or Romney – shared that desire.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.