In Kabul, Obama highlights foreign policy record

May 1, 2012 - 7:58 PM
Obama Afghanistan

President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama answered political taunts with presidential muscle Tuesday, addressing the nation from Kabul as Republicans said he's overdoing the celebration of Osama bin Laden's death one year ago.

The president's secret flight to Afghanistan — where he signed off on details for withdrawing U.S. troops from the decade-long war there — was the type of campaign counterpunch that may play out many times in his re-election battle against Republican Mitt Romney.

Obama began his visit at the same air base where Navy SEALs launched their daring raid on bin Laden's house in Pakistan.

Timing his pre-dawn speech in Kabul for evening viewing back home, Obama brought attention to his three chief foreign policy achievements: ending the Iraq war roughly as he promised in 2008; killing bin Laden, whose terrorist organization killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001; and setting a timetable for ending the increasingly unpopular Afghanistan war.

Both political parties agree the Nov. 6 election will hinge mainly on the U.S. economy. Before the campaign gets fully engaged, however, Obama is using his presidential prerogatives — and risking new complaints of political exploitation — to make his strongest possible case on military and diplomatic fronts.

"One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden," Obama said in his 10-minute speech in front of empty armored personnel carriers. "The goal that I set - to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild - is within reach."

Republicans, and even some liberal allies, said Obama's team went too far last week in releasing a campaign video suggesting Romney would not have ordered the risky nighttime raid on bin Laden's suspected compound. But some Democratic strategists defended the strategy.

Obama "is in an unusually strong position, thanks to keeping his promises on Afghanistan and Iraq, overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden and otherwise keeping America strong and secure," said Doug Hattaway, who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign against Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. "The economy will remain top of the list for most people," Hattaway said, "but it definitely helps to highlight his successes in this area."

Vice President Joe Biden launched the political argument last week.

"Thanks to President Obama, bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive," Biden said in a campaign speech. "You have to ask yourself, if Gov. Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan — in reverse?"

The double-barreled taunt hit Romney's criticism of the administration's auto industry bailout and the mixed signals Romney gave in 2007 about the lengthy hunt for bin Laden.

Romney first told The Associated Press that it was not worth "moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." He later said of bin Laden, "We'll move everything to get him," but it's not "all about one person."

Romney said this week "of course" he would have approved the raid on bin Laden's compound. "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," he said.

Democrats said the mention of Carter underscored precisely the political risk Obama was willing to take. A 1980 Carter-approved attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran ended in disaster in an Iranian desert, with helicopters destroyed, eight servicemen dead and the United States deeply embarrassed.

"It's very important for people to understand that this was a gutsy political call," said former Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., who now heads the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Facing conflicting predictions about the bin Laden raid's chances for success, Obama showed "a combination of deliberation and decisiveness" that Americans like, Perriello said.

Some Republicans, however, have sharply criticized the president's references to bin Laden's death.

"Barack Obama is not only trying to score political points by invoking Osama bin Laden, he is doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get re-elected," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who lost to Obama in 2008.

Writer Arianna Huffington, usually an Obama ally, joined in. She told "CBS This Morning": "Using the Osama bin Laden assassination, killing, the great news that we had a year ago, in order to say basically that Obama did it and Romney might not have done it ... to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do."

Like most former governors who run for president, Romney has scant foreign policy experience. He has said Obama is too faint-hearted in defending Israel and in warning Iran and North Korea about the potential consequences of their nuclear ambitions.

Democratic strategists say relatively few voters will base their November ballots on such claims.

While Obama was flying to Kabul Tuesday, Romney visited the lower Manhattan site where hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center's towers in the 2001 terror attacks.

"It's totally appropriate for the president to express to the American people the view that he has that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden," Romney said. "I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together."