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

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
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.

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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.

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