Rewinding Romney on Counterterrorism: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘Attacks on America’

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By now everyone knows that Mitt Romney doubted back in 2007 whether killing Osama bin Laden was really worth the trouble. The Romney camp has dredged up a more bloodthirsty quote that muddies the issue, but if we’re going to rewind the tape, a couple of other interesting quotes turn up. Like the way that, in August 2007, Romney responded to Barack Obama’s threat to strike al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan by mockingly labeling him “Dr. Strangelove.” (Great movie, although the title character was more mad scientist than trigger-happy general; that role was filled by the insane Air Force General Jack D. Ripper. More problematic anyway is the fact that striking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan now enjoys near-universal acceptance.)

Let’s add to the mix an interesting speech Romney gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he suspended his  his 2008 campaign that February. First,  an excerpt that will cheer the Romney camp:

Now, I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know. But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, and finding and executing Osama bin Laden.

So far so good. The problem comes from a passage immediately preceding that one, in which Romney says this:

Today we are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror: They would retreat, declare defeat. And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child’s play. About this, I have no doubt.

We can only speculate about whether Romney would have sent the Navy Seals into Abbotabad. But Romney’s prediction about the impact of Obama’s policies looks awfully wrongheaded today.

It’s true that terrorists based in haven-like areas have come close to hitting the U.S. since Obama took office. Think of the Yemen-based underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or the failed New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, who was trained in Pakistan. But those regions, and ones in other countries like Somalia, are under heavier pressure than ever thanks to the ruthless drone campaign Obama is waging. And while reasonable people argue about whether America left Iraq too quickly, I’m not aware of anyone who claims the result has been dangerous new terrorist havens.

Those bad calls actually seem more significant than Romney’s initial claim that it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth” to catch bin Laden. His point at the time, as an interview transcript shows, was that bin Laden was a small component of the larger radical Islamist threat to the U.S., and that his death would only make America slightly more secure. That was hardly a crazy notion, and one shared at the time by some top military officials. (And did you wake up feeling vastly more secure on May 2, 2011?)

Questioning the wisdom of counter-terror strikes in Pakistan, and wrongly gauging the effect of Obama’s Iraq and terrorism policies, however, suggest a deeper lack of strategic judgment. That‘s what Romney should really be worried about. And once Obama is done spiking the bin Laden football, that’s where he might want to direct the conversation.