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Tough Enough

A Commentary by Joe Conason

It is always a happy moment when Americans are reminded of our country's greatness, especially when we are so often warned about its imminent decline -- and the elimination of Osama bin Laden, fanatical murderer of thousands of Christians, Jews and Muslims, was certainly such a moment.

Especially for those of us who were living in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as those who died and their families, justice was finally done. From now on, the heroic pantheon associated with that infamous date will include not only the police officers, firefighters and rescue workers of 9/11, but the Navy SEALs and the military and intelligence officers who avenged them.

Everyone who feels pride and satisfaction in bin Laden's fate must also acknowledge the bold action and sound priorities of President Obama, who has coolly and cleanly fulfilled a promise he made during his campaign. Maintaining the nation's dignity and his own, he has handled the aftermath of the mission with precise correctness and stayed focused on the policy goals that guide his administration.

Getting rid of bin Laden won't mean the instant disappearance of terrorism or the alienation that its perpetrators always exploit -- the issues that he sought to symbolize will remain. But in this country, the performance of the president and those around him should permanently dispel the perennial right-wing slur against Democratic leaders as deficient in the strength and courage to defend our security.

A standard-issue weapon in the Republican political arsenal, that canard was an artifact of the Vietnam War era, when progressives led a protest movement against a war that is now broadly acknowledged to have been an enormous waste of lives and money. Bush White House political adviser Karl Rove revived the idea that Democrats were less tough and less patriotic for strictly partisan purposes in the wake of 9/11, even as the nation yearned for unity.

In a post-9/11 speech delivered to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, while Democrats in Congress and across the country were giving full support to President Bush's declaration of war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, Rove said: "We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."

Rove used that theme to win a smashing victory in the midterm elections that year and amplified the accusation to maximum shrillness when he addressed a conservative group in New Jersey following the president's re-election -- a victory achieved at the cost of defaming a Democratic war hero, Sen. John Kerry, during the 2004 campaign.

"Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," he said. "In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to ... submit a petition.

"I don't know about you," he continued, "but moderation and restraint is not what I felt -- and moderation and restraint is not what was called for. It was a moment to summon our national will -- and to brandish steel."

Never mind that the only steel Rove has ever brandished is a dinner fork. The overheated rhetoric, faked intelligence, "enhanced interrogations" and mindless militarism of the Bush administration never produced bin Laden dead or alive, as promised back then, and instead misled us into the trillion-dollar quicksand of Iraq, from which President Obama is still extracting us.

What we ought to learn from these painful years is that restraint can indeed be consistent with resolve -- and that the loudmouths of the right have no monopoly on toughness.


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