By Andrew J. Polsky
No Easy Day, the new book by a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden on 30 April 2011, has attracted widespread comment, most of it focused on whether bin Laden posed a threat at the time he was gunned down. Another theme in the account by Mark Owen (a pseudonym) is how the team members openly weighed the political ramifications of their actions. As the Huffington Post reports:
Though he praises the president for green-lighting the risky assault, Owen says the SEALS joked that Obama would take credit for their success…. one SEAL joked, “And we’ll get Obama reelected for sure. I can see him now, talking about how he killed bin Laden.”
Owen goes on to comment that he and his peers understood that they were “tools in the toolbox, and when things go well [political leaders] promote it.” It is an observation that invites only one response: Duh.
Of course, a president will bask in the glow of a national security success. The more interesting question, though, is whether it translates into gains for him and/or his party in the next election. The direct political impact of a military victory, a peace agreement, or (as in this case) the elimination of a high-profile adversary tends to be short-lived. That said, events may not be isolated; they also figure in the narratives politicians and parties tell. For Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2012, this secondary effect is the more important one.
Wartime presidents have always been sensitive to the ticking of the political clock. In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln famously fretted that he would lose his reelection bid. Grant’s army stalled at Petersburg after staggering casualties in his Overland campaign; Sherman’s army seemed just as frustrated in the siege of Atlanta; and a small Confederate army led by Jubal Early advanced through the Shenandoah Valley to the very outskirts of Washington. So bleak were the president’s political fortunes that Republicans spoke openly of holding a second convention to choose a different nominee. Only the string of Union victories — at Atlanta, in the Shenandoah Valley, and at Mobile Bay — before the election turned the political tide.
Election timing may tempt a president to shape national security decisions for political advantage. In the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt was eager to see US troops invade North Africa before November 1942. Partly he was motivated by a desire to see American forces engage the German army to forestall popular demands to redirect resources to the war against Japan, the more hated enemy. But Roosevelt also wanted a major American offensive before the mid-term elections to deflect attention from wartime shortages and labor disputes that fed Republican attacks on his party’s management of the war effort. To his credit, he didn’t insist on a specific pre-election date for Operation Torch, and the invasion finally came a week after the voters had gone to the polls (and inflicted significant losses on his party).
The Vietnam War illustrates the intimate tie between what happens on the battlefield and elections back home. In the wake of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Lyndon Johnson came within a whisker of losing the New Hampshire Democratic primary, an outcome widely interpreted as a defeat. He soon announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. Four years later, on the eve of the 1972 election, Richard Nixon delivered the ultimate “October surprise”: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that “peace is at hand,” following conclusion of a preliminary agreement with Hanoi’s lead negotiator Le Duc Tho. In fact, however, Kissinger left out a key detail. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu balked at the terms and refused to sign. Only after weeks of pressure, threats, and secret promises from Nixon, plus renewed heavy bombing of Hanoi, did Thieu grudgingly accept a new agreement that didn’t differ in its significant provisions from the October version.
But national security success yields ephemeral political gains. After the smashing coalition triumph in the 1991 Gulf War, George H. W. Bush enjoyed strikingly high public approval ratings. Indeed, he was so popular that a number of leading Democrats concluded he was unbeatable and decided not to seek their party’s presidential nomination the following year. But by fall 1992 the victory glow had worn off, and the public focused instead on domestic matters, especially a sluggish economy. Bill Clinton’s notable ability to project empathy played much better than Bush’s detachment.
And so it has been with Osama and Obama. Following the former’s death, the president received the expected bump in the polls. Predictably, though, the gain didn’t persist amid disappointing economic results and showdowns with Congress over the debt ceiling. From the poll results, we might conclude that Owen and his Seal buddies were mistaken about the political impact of their operation.
But there is more to it. Republicans have long enjoyed a political edge on national security, but not this year. The death of Osama bin Laden, coupled with a limited military intervention in Libya that brought down an unpopular dictator and ongoing drone attacks against suspected terrorist groups, has inoculated Barack Obama from charges of being soft on America’s enemies. Add the end of the Iraq War and the gradual withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the narrative takes shape: here is a president who understands how to use force efficiently and with minimal risk to American lives. Thus far Mitt Romney’s efforts to sound “tougher” on foreign policy have fallen flat with the voters. That he so rarely brings up national security issues demonstrates how little traction his message has.
None of this guarantees that the president will win a second term. The election, like the one in 1992, will be much more about the economy. But the Seal team operation reminds us that war and politics are never separated.
Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.
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