'Even Jimmy Carter'

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Mitt Romney informs us that the raid that took out Osama bin Laden one year ago was no big deal, because "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."

Grrrrr.

Necessary disclosure: I worked for Jimmy Carter and admire his intentions, his character, and many of his achievements, although I am not usually considered an uncritical booster of his record as president.

But let's remember:

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1) Jimmy Carter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent ten years in the uniformed service of his country. As far as I can tell, this is ten years more than the cumulative service of all members of the Romney clan. Obviously you don't have to be a veteran to have judgments about military policy or criticisms of others' views. But when it comes to casual slurs about someone else's strength or resolve, you want to be careful, as a guy on the sidelines, sounding this way about people who have served.

2) Jimmy Carter did indeed make a gutsy go/no-go call. It turned out to be a tactical, strategic, and political disaster. You can read the blow-by-blow in Mark Bowden's retrospective of "The Desert One Debacle." With another helicopter, the mission to rescue U.S. diplomats then captive in Teheran might well have succeeded -- and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been re-elected. Full discussion another time, but I think he's right. (Even with the fiasco, and a miserable "stagflation" economy, the 1980 presidential race was very close until the very end.)

But here's the main point about Carter. Deciding to go ahead with that raid was a close call. Carter's own Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, had opposed the raid and handed in his resignation even before the results were known. And it was a daring call -- a choice in favor of a risky possible solution to a festering problem, knowing that if it went wrong there would be bad consequences all around, including for Carter himself. So if you say "even Jimmy Carter" to mean "even a wimp," as Romney clearly did, you're showing that you don't know the first thing about the choice he really made.

3) Precisely because of the consequences of Carter's failure, Obama was the more daring in making his go/no-go decision. That's the case I argued last year, and nothing I've learned since then changes my view. As a college student, Obama had seen a marginally popular Democratic president come to ruin because he approved a helicopter-based secret mission into hostile Middle Eastern terrain. Obama went ahead with a helicopter-based secret mission into nominally "allied" territory, also with huge potential for trouble if things had gone wrong.

4)  And while the Osama killing reflected a decade's worth of intelligence and effort from people of both parties, and of no party, it happened on Obama's watch. Is there any doubt that if it had happened on Bush's, or on a President John McCain's, it would have been the centerpiece of every political speech and commercial? Was there a single speech in the Republicans' 2004 convention -- in New York -- that did not begin and end with a reference to 9/11, or the removal of Saddam Hussein?

So: obviously the Administration will want to remind voters that Osama bin Laden is gone, and obviously the Republicans will want to minimize the political significance of that fact. All fine. But not "even Jimmy Carter." I hope that the crack was a scripted attack line, rather than being yet another spontaneous glimpse of the way Mitt Romney feels and thinks. "Even" Jimmy Carter made a daring choice, and paid the price.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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