What Romney said about bin Laden

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The Obama campaign has used the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden to launch a multi-media attack suggesting Mitt Romney would not have had the guts to kill the world's most notorious terrorist.

First, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to New York University to give a speech lauding the decision to kill bin Laden, at the same time accusing Romney of shying away from the hunt.  Biden quoted a 2007 Associated Press interview in which Romney said, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," and suggested that Romney essentially gave up on the bin Laden hunt while Barack Obama courageously stayed the course.

On Friday, the Obama campaign released a web ad making the same accusation, quoting the same 2007 Romney interview.  Then, at a fundraising breakfast in Washington Friday morning, Biden was at it again, telling donors the bin Laden raid exposed "fundamental differences" between Obama and Romney.  Yet again, Biden cited Romney's 2007 interview.

So just what did Romney say in that interview?  Yes, he did say "moving heaven and earth," but he also discussed at some length a greater war on terror that targeted not only al Qaeda but other terrorist groups as well.  For the record, this is the exchange between Romney and Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti:

SIDOTI: Why haven't we caught bin Laden in your opinion?

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: I think, I wouldn't want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He's one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He's by no means the only leader. It's a very diverse group – Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that.

SIDOTI: But would the world be safer if bin laden were caught?

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: Yes, but by a small percentage increase – a very insignificant increase in safety by virtue of replacing bin Laden with someone else. Zarqawi – we celebrated the killing of Zarqawi, but he was quickly replaced. Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is – it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates.

SIDOTI: Do you fault the administration for not catching him though? I mean, they've had quite a few years going after him.

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: There are many things that have not been done perfectly in any conduct of war. In the Second World War, we paratroopered in our troops further than they were supposed to be from the beaches. We landed in places on the beaches that weren't anticipated. Do I fault Eisenhower? No, he won. And I'm nowhere near as consumed with bin Laden as I am concerned about global Jihadist efforts.

In terms of fighting terrorism, Romney was making an entirely reasonable argument -- and if Obama had not gotten bin Laden, Joe Biden would be making the very same argument right now.  But Romney either did not fully appreciate or simply failed to emphasize that, after September 11, the United States had a sacred obligation to track down and kill bin Laden, no matter where he was or how long it took.  It was just plain justice.  And the world's bad actors had to know that if they attacked the United States, the U.S. government would find them and kill them.  (I criticized Romney for his statement at the time for it; you can read that here.)

Back in '07, Romney's rivals rapped him for the comments, and when the subject came up in a May 2007 MSNBC debate, moderated by Chris Matthews, Romney said flatly, "Of course we get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted on America."

"Do we move heaven and Earth to do it?" Matthews asked.

"We'll move everything to get him," Romney answered.  He continued:

But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shi'a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.

They also probably want to bring down the United States of America. This is a global effort we're going to have to lead to overcome this jihadist effort. It's more than Osama bin Laden. But he is going to pay, and he will die.

It's fair to say Romney will never again make the mistake of downplaying the importance of killing Osama bin Laden.  But it's also fair to say that the Obama administration's crowing about the issue -- the president opened up the usually-secret White House Situation Room for a bin Laden anniversary interview -- could backfire.  Late Friday, Sen. John McCain, who as a rival candidate criticized Romney on the bin Laden issue back in '07, released a statement slamming both Obama's bin Laden publicity tour and his performance in the area of national security.  "With a record like that on national security," McCain said, "it is no wonder why President Obama is shamelessly turning the one decision he got right into a pathetic political act of self-congratulation."

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