The Real Context of Romney’s bin Laden Remarks

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

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