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Soft on terrorism? Bin Laden kill shatters another Obama myth

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 5/10/2011, 3:40 p.m.

Soft on terrorism? Bin Laden kill shatters another Obama myth

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, the GOP plan of attack on then-candidate Barack Obama was simple: pound him relentlessly as soft on terrorism and antagonistic toward the military. GOP presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush Sr., and especially George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election fight against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) used this ploy masterfully against their Democratic opponents.

The GOP strategists believed that the soft-on-terrorism smear would work even better against Obama. He was a liberal Democrat, untested in foreign policy matters; he had made conciliatory remarks about Islam; he was a staunch opponent of the Iraq war, and unstated, but very much a part of the thinking, he was African American.

This supposedly made him vulnerable to the widely held, borderline racist suspicions that blacks are unpatriotic. The smear almost worked. Polls consistently showed that despite the mountain of political baggage carried by GOP presidential contender John McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin, and the rest of the Republican Party — not to mention the sky-high voter disgust with Bush’s domestic and foreign policy bumbles — the terrorism issue still had enough resonance to keep McCain competitive.

But Obama knew the history of how the GOP used the terrorism ploy to discredit Democrats, and he moved quickly to counter their attacks. He threatened preemptive strikes against Pakistan for harboring terrorists and vowed to wage fierce war in Afghanistan against terrorism and al Qaeda. During the campaign, he promised to launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were, including search-and-destroy missions to ferret out Osama bin Laden. He even quipped that he’d put his own life on the line to stop another 9/11.

To the GOP’s shock — to the ire of many progressive and liberal Democrats — Obama was as good as his word. He refused to soften any of the provisions of the Patriot Act, promptly issued a shoot-to-kill order against Somali pirates who had seized American hostages, stepped up the drone attacks on the Taliban in Pakistan, and approved the massive expansion of troops, bases and spending on the Afghan war.

But most importantly, he issued tough (and secret) orders to the CIA to continue to do everything to destroy and disrupt al Qaeda and to take out the one man that Americans most wanted dead: Osama bin Laden. Obama’s order to the CIA and military counter-terror teams hunting bin Laden was clear — Do not capture, but kill.

The sudden, stunning success of that mission has forced GOP leaders to scramble. The cheering crowds outside the White House following the announcement that bin Laden was dead, the glowing praise from much of the public and the congratulations from world leaders drove home the frightening political implications for the Republicans, just as the 2012 campaign is gearing up.

Obama had done the one thing that Bush, despite his bluster and tough talk, could not do — take out America’s public enemy number one, the world’s preeminent symbol of terror. In one fell, and spectacular, swoop, Obama has rudely shattered the myth that’s been a key weapon in the GOP arsenal for decades: that a Democratic president was incapable of waging a tough and effective war on terrorism.