When I repeatedly denounced George W. Bush’s doubling of the size of government during the last election, Republicans had one primary defense of their president: “Bush kept us safe.” Indeed, little else seemed to matter to most Republicans at the time, as the party rallied around their leader, his record and a GOP presidential nominee who ran on a virtually identical platform. The War on Terror trumped all else, Republicans insisted, as the party devoted itself fully to the Warrior in Chief—who also happened to be one of the most big government presidents in American history.
Last week, President Obama significantly out-Bushed Bush: We killed Osama Bin Laden. Judging by their top priority for most of the last decade, it would seem that most Republicans will now vote for Obama in 2012. Sure, Bush doubled the size of government and the debt. Big deal—we were fighting a War on Terror. Sure, it’s true that Obama is now tripling the size of government and our debt. But so what—President Obama just killed the world’s top terrorist! “Obama kept us safe” might even be enough to carry the president through the next election.
The mindless war rhetoric the GOP cultivated during the Bush years might just be the Democrats’ best election weapon. Just let possible GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney try to bash Obama for only fighting three Middle Eastern wars instead of four (the neoconservatives are dying for a war with Iran). Just try to let Republicans bash Obama for “apologizing” for America, whatever the hell that means. It’s bumper sticker time, baby: “Obama killed Osama!” What’s “weak” about that? How many terrorists have Newt or Mitt killed?
Heading into 2012, could domestic policy once again take a backseat to foreign policy? After all, the “official” estimate for what it cost to kill Bin Laden from 9/11 to last week is $1.28 trillion. This is basically the dollar difference between Bush’s national debt and Obama’s. It seems that “freedom isn’t free”: It cost $1.28 trillion. This is only slightly more than the supposed “official” cost of Obamacare.
The truth is we could have captured or killed Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and other Al-Qaeda leaders for significantly less money, without invading Iraq or staying in Afghanistan for a decade, and most importantly, without losing so many American soldiers. Bin Laden was assassinated using military intelligence and a handful of highly trained soldiers, or as columnist George Will noted: “bin Laden was brought down by intelligence gathering that more resembles excellent police work than a military operation… the enormous military footprint in Afghanistan, next door to bin Laden’s Pakistan refuge, seems especially disproportionate in the wake of his elimination by a small cadre of specialists.”
There is a difference between the very real, if often overblown, war on Islamic terrorism in which we find ourselves, and the War on Terror narrative, in which virtually any foreign policy misadventure can be rationalized by invoking 9/11. But with the mastermind behind 9/11 dead, the question for America is now this: Is it time to come home? And if the death of Bin Laden is not the time, when will that time be?
The death of Bin Laden is a reason for all Americans to celebrate—and the celebration certainly cuts across party lines. But at precisely the moment many Americans and a majority of the Republican Party seem most concerned about the size of government and deficit spending, many conservatives are using the death of Bin Laden to vindicate Bush, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, “enhanced interrogation” and all the rest. This takes us right back to the Bush era contradiction of supposedly being for limited government while supporting leaders who consider it unlimited. “Getting back to the Constitution,” as the Tea Party now demands, is going to be awfully hard while simultaneously defending a president who arguably did more violence to the Constitution than any other.
In the wake of Osama’s death, Republicans have been quick to point out that Obama basically continued Bush’s entire national security agenda, and he did. In fact, he expanded it. But Obama has also carried out and expanded Bush’s domestic agenda. This is not a coincidence. Big government abroad is impossible without big government at home, and both presidents have been unsurprisingly consistent in their statism.
On both domestic and foreign policy, America desperately needs a cost/benefit analysis, not simply a blind defense of cost during a time of national jubilation. The death of America’s top enemy—and the way in which we achieved it—should encourage national reflection and hopefully a major reassessment of what this country can realistically achieve militarily. We should also begin to consider what we can afford and what we cannot.
All Americans should be happy we finally got Bin Laden. No American should be happy with the amount of money we’ve wasted and the number of lives we’ve sacrificed to do so, precisely because most of it wasn’t necessary to get Osama.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that our debt is the greatest threat to our national security, which means neither Bush or Obama have kept this country safe. Now is not the time to forget it.