WASHINGTON — With the icy riposte “ask Osama bin Laden,” President Barack Obama on Thursday rebutted Republican claims he is blind to the threat from radical “thugs” and guilty of appeasing US enemies.
Obama’s use of lethal force as US commander-in-chief against Al-Qaeda and other groups has partly insulated him from traditional Republican political attacks arguing that Democrats are weak on national security.
But his potential 2012 Republican election foes are seeking to use his sometimes testy relations with Israel to woo Jewish and evangelical voters and to paint Obama as timid in the face of threats from Iran.
“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top Al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement — or whoever’s left out there, ask them about that,” Obama said.
The blunt comment, delivered in an unusually chilling moment in the White House briefing room, showed a flash of the inner steel Obama has displayed since taking office in 2009 criticized by foes as an anti-war candidate.
It represented a rare foray by Obama into the foreign policy arguments beginning to bubble up in the 2012 campaign, and was a likely preview of debate showdowns with the eventual Republican presidential nominee.
Obama has presided over a vastly expanded drone war in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, Yemen and elsewhere designed to hunt down and kill members of Al-Qaeda and other terror groups threatening the United States.
The covert warfare, using military and CIA assets, drone strikes and other means, has decimated Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and seriously degraded its capacity to mount operations against the United States, top US officials say.
He also ordered the risky helicopter-borne US special forces raid deep inside Pakistan in May that killed Al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden, before quickly burying him at sea off of a US aircraft carrier.
One Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, accused Obama on Wednesday of having “insulted” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of being “timid and weak in the face of the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran.”
Republican long-shot candidate Rick Santorum told the same forum of Jewish voters that Obama was similar to politicians who appeased Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
“For every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, he (Obama) has had nothing but appeasement,” said Santorum.
Romney also accused Obama of having “adopted an appeasement strategy” that “betrays a lack of faith in America.”
In a short briefing with reporters, Obama also defended his strategy of imposing painful sanctions against Iran from Republicans who complain it is not slowing Tehran’s nuclear program.
“I think it’s very important to remember, particularly given some of the political noise out there, that this administration has systematically imposed the toughest sanctions on Iran ever,” Obama told reporters.
“When we came into office the world was divided. Iran was unified and moving aggressively on its own agenda.
“Today, Iran is isolated and the world is unified and applying the toughest sanctions that Iran’s ever experienced, and (that) is having an impact inside of Iran,” he added.
Obama also reiterated that “all options” were on the table with Iran, in reference to speculation over whether the United States would take military action against nuclear sites — but did not divulge what those options were.
Several Republican White House candidates also accused Obama of coddling Tehran.
“Ultimately, regime change is what’s going to be necessary” in Iran, Romney said, while his rival Newt Gingrich bluntly called for “regime replacement” and vowed to “fund every dissident group in the country.”