Obama, like other presidents, gets praise and blame for military actions.

Some say the Obama campaign is wrong to draw a contrast between the president’s decision on bin Laden and the views expressed by Romney.

Why? On the one hand, it’s because, they say, any president would have made the same decisions. And on the other hand, they claim that presidential military decisions are less important than what the military did and only these heroes should be praised.

But these sorts of claims overlook a number of realities. 

One is that, as the president holds the position of commander-in-chief, the president is judged for his actions as such.  Through America history, presidents have been judged both in the short term and the long term. After Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia and Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion, they were criticized. No one said that those they ordered deserved criticism.

And the same is true when people approve of military action. George H.W. Bush received a great deal of support for a well-conceived effort in the Persian Gulf War. Some criticized him for not going beyond Kuwait into Iraq, but more praised this decision — and it was the president’s decision. He got credit for it, not just the military leadership and troops for having done it so well.

Presidents, when they get praise, talk about these accomplishments. They and their supporters don’t ignore them. Presidential decisions on military matters have been talked about in campaigns for years and years, both praise and criticism.

Moreover, not every president would make the same decision in the same circumstances.

There are long debates about what other presidents would have done in similar circumstances. How would have presidents other than JFK handled the Cuban Missile Crisis? What if Johnson hadn’t been president 1963-1968? How would have the Vietnam War developed?

When it comes to bin Laden, we know that the Bush administration wasn’t all that interested in finding bin Laden. President Bush said so and the record is clear that his administration was more interested in state sponsors of terrorism. Romney’s words in his last presidential campaign mirrored the Bush approach and his current set of foreign policy and military advisors are from that administration. Romney’s views and those of his advisors will certainly affect his likelihood to engage in or refrain from particular military actions.

In brief, presidents always get support or condemnation based on what they do as commander-in-chief.

This is not a some sort of strange quirk, but is rather a feature of the American constitutional system since not all presidents would make the same decisions.

And arguing about whether a president deserves praise or condemnation, as well as arguing about whether the president is out of line for doing so is inherently political and has also always been a part of American politics. As has been pointed out, we are seeing people who promoted our last president’s place as a military and foreign policy leader, and drawing sharp contrasts between the president and his political opponents, claiming that such activities are just not right.

Addendum: When it comes to Obama and bin Laden, here’s what Richard Clarke, the long-time White House anti-terrorism official said:

The iconic image of President Barack Obama and his national security team huddled in the Situation Room to monitor the unfolding operation in Pakistan has come to symbolize the president’s difficult decision to override several of his advisers and launch the operation.

Perhaps less appreciated, but also crucial, were other decisions he made about that operation. The president chose a risky helicopter raid over a more cautious but imprecise air strike that might have compromised success and risked significant collateral damage in the surrounding Pakistani town. He then personally decided to add backup helicopters.

He also decided not to inform Pakistan of the operation beforehand, since Pakistan has previously tipped off terrorists to help them escape surprise raids. Still, this is a difficult calculation: Pakistan remains a necessary partner in the pursuit of al-Qaida, and the raid came against the backdrop of tense diplomatic battles over the U.S. drone campaign in that country.

The president’s impact on the successful pursuit of bin Laden dates even earlier to 2009, when he reviewed activities aimed at bin Laden and ordered a stepped up operation to find the terrorist leader. The truth is that under President George W. Bush, resources had been diverted from the hunt for bin Laden, and the White House had played down the importance of his capture. Obama has also kept up a relentless campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. The United States launched more strikes in Obama’s first year than in Bush’s eight, and the targeted strikes have severely reduced the ranks of senior al-Qaida figures.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.