Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Is White House overselling impact of bin Laden's death?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon April 30, 2012
President Barack Obama addresses troops at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on May 6, 2011, days after the Osama bin Laden raid.
President Barack Obama addresses troops at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on May 6, 2011, days after the Osama bin Laden raid.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Is President Obama's team exploiting Osama bin Laden's death for political purposes?
  • David Gergen says the answer is yes, but other presidents have done similar things
  • He says the real question is whether the world is safer after bin Laden is gone
  • Gergen: Other militant Islamists are active; Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is worrisome

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- An aggressive public relations offensive by the White House, celebrating the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, is kicking up a hot political fuss. But are we arguing over the wrong question?

With their eyes clearly locked on the November elections, President Barack Obama and his team are going all out to dramatize his decision-making and success in taking out America's most wanted.

What they're doing: Opening up the White House situation room for a presidential interview with NBC, running a television ad by former President Bill Clinton, feeding stories to authors and journalists, encouraging surrogate attacks on Mitt Romney's courage, even a catchy campaign slogan from Joe Biden -- "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

David Gergen
David Gergen

In mock innocence, the White House says they are only responding to news media requests. Yeah, sure.

Is this White House exploitation for political purposes indecorous and unbecoming, as Republicans claim? Of course it is.

Another view: Why Obama owns bin Laden

Bin Laden death enters U.S. politics
Osama bin Laden dead: One year ago

President George H.W. Bush set the standard for exemplary conduct when he refused to dance on the Soviet grave after its empire collapsed and directed credit toward the U.S. military when they chased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

But more often than not, a president looking toward re-election has gone too far the other way, milking foreign adventures for votes and Republicans have been as guilty as Democrats.

One of my vivid memories from early White House days was the way we choreographed Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, and especially his triumphant return, so that his helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base landed on the Capitol lawn and he then strode into the House chamber to report to a joint session of Congress. It was boffo television, and he won re-election in a landslide not long after.

Or think of that "Top Gun" performance by President George W. Bush in 2003 as he landed on an aircraft carrier, stepped out in a flight jacket, and spoke to a prime time audience about Iraq -- with that "Mission Accomplished" banner just behind him. Even in my wildest dreams in the White House, I never dreamed of using an aircraft carrier as a prop. Not long after, Bush, too, won re-election. (It was not lost on the son that dad's approach hadn't won over voters for re-election.)

So even though Obama's critics have a valid point about his current PR offensive, they shouldn't beat him up. The public is a good judge of when a president and his team overplay their hands.

Indeed, it would be far better for Republicans to acknowledge that the president, his advisers and especially the CIA and the Navy SEALs handled bin Laden superbly. Because they did. This was a moment that richly deserves public praise.

If they would acknowledge that achievement, his critics would then have the credibility to raise the more important and serious question: whether the killing of bin Laden and the gradual crushing of al Qaeda as a serious threat to the U.S. has been as transformative as the White House would lead us to believe.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and at Facebook/CNNOpinion

No one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is hanging up "Mission Accomplished" banners, but with elections a half year away, the White House wants us to know that we have a warrior commander in chief at the helm nailing our enemies.

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.

Serious observers are arguing that in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, the world may actually have become more dangerous. In Sunday's Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius persuasively makes the case that we got our man but, as bin Laden hoped, other militant Islamists are now gaining political strength in key countries such as Egypt and Syria.

In an excellent essay in Time on bin Laden's elimination, Kennedy School scholar Graham Allison argues that as we now focus on Iran producing its first bomb in the coming 12 months, an increasingly unreliable Pakistan could produce 12 in the same time span.

"So as we applaud extraordinary performance in this operation," concludes Allison, "we are left contemplating a discovery that means we are likely to soon face even more daunting challenges in the days and months ahead."

In a political campaign filled with too many diversions, these are the challenges we should be arguing about on the bin Laden anniversary.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT