My old American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "theater," inter alia, as "a large geographic area in which military operations are coordinated." Throughout World War II, official dispatches and press reports described military action and events in the European, Pacific and China-Burma-India "theaters of war." We now have a new definition, courtesy of our present commander in chief: a place to remind everyone that Osama bin Laden is still dead.
On the anniversary of bin Laden's demise at the hands of U.S. special operators, the Barack Obama re-election campaign made a "surprise" middle-of-the-night visit to Kabul, Afghanistan. According to White House talking points, the purpose of the trip was twofold: "thank the troops" and sign a "historic" strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan's erratic president, Hamid Karzai. It was brilliant political theater in a theater of war.
Since the end of World War II, few military operations have received as much self-congratulatory acclaim by a commander in chief as the operation to kill the head of al-Qaida. Mention of Osama bin Laden's death is a constant in every Obama campaign appearance and fundraiser. Bin Laden's being dead is a staple in Democratic Party direct mail and Internet solicitations and mentioned more often than Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. The topic even creeps into speeches about green energy, health care, the economy and White House meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Republicans complain about the O-Team's hyping bin Laden's death. They cite Vice President Joe Biden's chest-thumping comment that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive" as proof that Obama is "overplaying his hand" or "taking too much credit," even "dancing in the end zone." But wait. Every politician running for re-election touts his or her "accomplishments," deserved or not. And face it; killing bin Laden is one of the few real accomplishments of this administration. Anyone who didn't see this "we killed bin Laden celebration" coming knows less about American politics than my Boykin spaniel.
Angst over the O-Team's use of bin Laden's death in the president's re-election campaign is a distraction. Critics -- including Mitt Romney's advisers -- should focus on issues that really are important to protecting the American people. Some recent examples:
There are Republicans running around Washington trying to calculate how much this week's campaign junket to Kabul cost the American taxpayers. But this isn't just another General Services Administration swindle. Those who want us to hire a new commander in chief need to explain what's in -- and not in -- the so-called Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama and Karzai signed in the few minutes they spent together Tuesday morning. The document has glowing words about "shared determination" and "mutual commitments" but is silent on our financial burden. It contains nothing about how many American military personnel will remain in Afghanistan after our "combat forces" are withdrawn in 2014 and fails to describe their mission or capabilities. Unlike a status of forces agreement, it provides no legal protections for U.S. troops. In short, it's fluff. The Romney team needs to tell us how it would do better.
The substance of what actually transpired in Kabul wasn't the only missed opportunity for the GOP to hone in on the Obama administration's destitute national security record. On Monday, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, told a Washington audience that "targeted strikes" from remotely piloted aircraft (the media incorrectly refer to them as drones) are the most "effective," "legal," "proportional," "ethical" and even "humane" way of protecting us from terrorists. Instead of a GOP response, it took Jose Rodriguez, former director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service and author of the new book "Hard Measures," to ask how death by Hellfire missile is more "humane" than capturing and questioning terror kingpins. Rodriguez points out that Obama's "take no prisoners" policy means no captured terrorists, no interrogations and no human intelligence.
Obama doesn't talk about our abysmal lack of human intelligence in this long war. He called waterboarding and sleep deprivation for captured terrorists "torture" and banned those enhanced interrogation techniques.
Our appalling HUMINT deficit was evident shortly after Air Force One took off from Bagram Air Field early Tuesday morning, when suicide bombers struck "Green Village," a secure compound outside Kabul. Press accounts incorrectly ascribed the attack -- which killed seven and wounded dozens, including schoolchildren -- to the Taliban. A credible source says that the assault was conducted by the Haqqani network and that NATO officials were alerted more than six hours before the strike about the arrival of the suicide team in Kabul. The intel provided included information on how to precisely locate the terrorists. When I asked why the attack wasn't prevented, I was told: "It was HUMINT. Nobody pays attention to HUMINT."
Strategists in the "Romney for president" campaign need to identify problems such as these and explain how Romney would fix them -- fast. Bin Laden is still dead. But the war being waged against us isn't. If Republicans fail to focus on doing better, the O-Team will turn the "theater of war" in Afghanistan into a "theater of the absurd."