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May surprise

Politics | President Obama's Afghanistan trip brings Osama bin Laden to the campaign

In his surprise address in Afghanistan marking the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, President Barack Obama on Tuesday night spoke about a transition of power that will see the final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops there by 2014.

The president outlined an agreement he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that will put American forces in counter-terrorism and training roles with the Afghan military. He promised not to build permanent bases in the country and talked about seeing "the light of a new day on the horizon" in Afghanistan.

"Our goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that," Obama said staring directly at the camera while being flanked by two imposing military vehicles.

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But what Obama didn't do was look in the camera and ask, "What path would Mitt Romney have taken?"

He didn't have to do that because an Obama campaign ad released Friday starring former President Bill Clinton already had asked that question.

The charges and countercharges over the politicization of the anniversary of bin Laden's death had been flying around even before Obama used the power of his office to make a surprise visit to Afghanistan to address the nation from there. The developments show that nothing likely will be sacred during this election battle.

Obama last visited Afghanistan in December 2010 and last addressed the nation about Afghanistan in June 2011.

"Clearly this trip is campaign related," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The security improvements and the killing of Osama bin Laden a year ago are great American victories that should not be politicized."

In addition to the Clinton video arguing that Romney would not have made the call to take down bin Laden, the Obama campaign recently released a seven-minute video featuring the bin Laden raid.

Romney, who did not have the benefit of Air Force One to carry him to Afghanistan, chose to spend Tuesday at a New York City firehouse that lost 11 men on Sept. 11, 2001. He had to dance a fine line, both telling reporters that it was "totally appropriate" for Obama to take credit for ordering the raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound and, at the same time, protesting the videos that suggested he wouldn't have done the same.

"I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together," Romney said. "Had I been president of the United States I would have made the same decision."

In addition to signing the agreement with Karzai, Obama, who accompanied on the trip by longtime campaign strategist David Plouffe, met with U.S. soldiers, awarding 10 Purple Hearts. But do not doubt that the centerpiece of Obama's unannounced visit was his live address to the nation, made at 4 a.m. Afghanistan time. His campaign hopes it will solidify Obama's foreign policy credentials and remind voters of the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in streets around the nation this time last year.

For final judgment on the use of bin Laden's death anniversary in an election year, it may be best to listen to another former presidential candidate who, unlike Romney and Obama, has actually served in combat. "All I can say is that this is going to be a very rough campaign," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. "And I've had the great honor of serving in the company of heroes. And you know the thing about heroes? They don't brag."

Also see Mindy Belz's Web Extra report "A new chapter."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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