Almost eight years ago, presidential candidate John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination with the infamous line: “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” His military service, in a war three decades old, became the centerpiece of his campaign.
Within weeks, the Republicans had turned what was seen as one of Kerry’s strongest assets against him. Swift Boats Veterans for Truth—which included over 200 Vietnam veterans, most who hadn’t even served with Kerry—succeeded in raising doubts about the heroic narrative Kerry was selling. What seemingly started as a scratch turned into a sucking chest wound for his campaign.
Yesterday, the Obama campaign got clawed.
Drudge blasted the headline from London’s Daily Mail: SEALS SLAM OBAMA FOR MAKING IT POLITICAL.
What was supposed to be an easy win—a victory lap on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death, trumping up the president’s most militant moment—appeared to be slipping away.
The frustration—or, even anger—within the SEAL community is real, and has been brewing for months, particularly among a politically conservative core of operators. It started immediately after the raid, with questions among the Special Forces and intelligence community of whether the president should have waited to announce the kill to exploit the intelligence cache at Osama’s compound. It simmered after a Chinook helicopter was shot down, killing 30 Americans, 22 of them Navy SEALs from Team Six.
Was it a coincidence, SEALs asked themselves, catastrophe hit Team Six so soon after being named as the team responsible for the killing?
The White House narrative on the Geronimo mission would soon come under scrutiny as well, after Chuck Pfarrer, a former member of Seal Team Six, published a book length account questioning the official version of the story. The controversial book was viciously attacked—a JSOC spokesperson called it a “fabrication”—and it was widely dismissed by the press.
What the pushback revealed, however, was an extreme sensitivity in the White House as to who would have the privilege to tell the Bin Laden story, best expressed in a compelling, if well stage-managed, story in the New Yorker. The piece recounted the Abbottabad raid based on interviews with senior administration and military officials, while imbuing the story with the drama of a SEAL’s eye view. Yet the author conceded he had not actually interviewed the men who did the shooting.
Over the past few days, I’ve reached out to a number of SEALs, both active duty and former. Most active duty SEALs were reluctant to go on the record venting or praising their boss, but one of the most interesting responses I received from an operator was to direct me to Leif Babin, a SEAL who left active duty last year.
Babin, who runs the consulting firm Echelon Front, wrote a little noticed op-ed in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal four months ago. The headline: OBAMA EXPLOITS THE NAVY SEALS. Babin took aim at “the president and his advisors, writing: “It is infuriating to see political gain put above the safety and security of our brave warriors and our long-term strategic goals.”
Obama campaign officials say the decision to put the Bin Laden hit at the centerpiece of the re-elect effort is a no brainer. (It has featurd in the new “Forward” ad; Vice President Biden’s speech last week; and a Davis Guggenheim documentary narrated by Tom Hanks.) The raid dispels the archetype of the supposedly weak Democrat; it’s reveals a moment of presidential decisiveness; and the successful killing of the aging terrorist in his Pakistani hideout, ten years after 9-11, a clear cut national triumph. It’s a topic the Obama camp is all too happy to discuss, at any length.
But as the stagey outrage over the politicization of foreign policy from Mitt Romney and his Republican allies gained momentum over this past weekend, White House officials started to have their doubts. Was spiking the football, again, and again, and again, in a public such a good idea? Was it necessary? Was the campaign in Chicago, White House officials wondered, going too far?
Like Kerry’s war record, the vulnerability to the president’s Bin Laden story isn’t so much from the other side, as it from those who can claim the mantle of veteran. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the website: navysealsagainstobama.com sprout up soon. Sure, military servicemen are accustomed to being exploited by both the left and the right. But that strategy can have its weaknesses, too. If the assault on the Bin Laden narrative continues, and if the anger expressed in private by the SEALs remains very public, the campaign might be forced to retreat.