PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Once a moment of national unity, the political battle over Osama bin Laden’s death intensified Monday as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sought to minimize the role President Barack Obama has carved out for himself in killing the terrorist leader.
The president’s re-election campaign has raised questions about Romney’s willingness to assassinate the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Obama authorized the U.S. military raid in Pakistan that ended with bin Laden’s death after a decade in hiding one year ago this week.
Romney pushed back Monday, saying “of course” he would have made the same decision.
“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney said, referencing the former president in his answer to a reporter’s question after a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.
Romney was scheduled to appear Tuesday in New York City with firefighters and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to help mark Wednesday’s anniversary of bin Laden’s death. Obama and his national security team will be featured in a NBC prime-time special Wednesday night that reconstructs the operation from inside the White House Situation Room.
Obama said Monday that the anniversary is a time for reflection, not celebration.
“I hardly think you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place here,” he said at a White House news conference. “I think that people, the American people, rightly remember what we as a country accomplished in bringing to justice somebody who killed over 3,000 of our citizens.”
But Obama is using the successful military operation to help maximize a political narrative that portrays him as having the courage to make the tough calls his opponent might not.
Bin Laden was killed his compound in Abbottabod, Pakistan, by U.S. Navy SEALs after evading capture for nearly 10 years.
Obama sent in the U.S. forces with no assurance that bin Laden was at the site, leading to a heart-pounding scene in the Situation Room that was captured in one of the most famous photos of Obama’s presidency.
But Romney and his advisers suggested Monday that the decision to order the raid was an easy one. In evoking Carter, however, Romney may have clouded his message.
Carter demonstrated how dangerous such decisions can be when he ordered an attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran. The 1980 mission ultimately embarrassed the nation, ending with the death of eight servicemen and the loss of several American helicopters. The hostage crisis lasted more than a year and helped deny Carter a second term.
On Sunday, Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said it was unclear whether Romney would have made the same decision as Obama.
“Look, just a few years ago, President Obama — then a candidate — said in a speech that if we had actionable intelligence of a high-value target in Pakistan, we’d go in and get that high value target,” Gibbs said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Mitt Romney said that was foolish. He wouldn’t do such a thing. That he wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden.”
Obama’s campaign last week released a video featuring former President Bill Clinton that seeks to reinforce Gibbs’ doubts about what Romney would have done in that situation. “Which path would mitt Romney have taken?” the video asks.
Democrat Arianna Huffington, founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, said the campaign ad went too far.
“I think it’s one thing to celebrate the fact that they did such a great job. All that is perfectly legitimate,” she said on CBS’ “This Morning.” “But to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do.”
Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, a key Romney supporter who was chief of staff in the first Bush White House, said Obama is wrongly taking credit for bin Laden’s killing. Sununu said the decision to strike was ultimately made by a Navy admiral.
“It’s wrong in taking credit and it’s wrong in implying that someone else would not have made the same decision,” Sununu said before Romney addressed a crowd on Portsmouth Fish Pier. “There is no way that anyone sitting in that White House would not have at least done what he did.”