How to understand “Swiftboating”

The Raid, May 2, 2011 (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new thread coursing through the U.S. presidential campaign has been an attack on President Obama’s alleged disclosures regarding the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden.  A 501(c)(4) political action committee called the Special Operations OPSEC [Operational Security] Education Fund has asserted that the Administration’s disclosures regarding the operations — particularly the revelation that SEAL Team Six carried out the May 2, 2011 mission — have seriously compromised the operational security, safety and effectiveness of covert military and paramilitary units like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, and CIA.  They may have a point.  In August later that year, 15 SEALS from the same team were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  Operational Security in the region, where infiltration and “green on blue” violence is a growing threat, is a vigilent concern.

The President’s supporters view this attack not as a benign public informational campaign on behalf of servicemen but as a hollow-point partisan attack benefiting the campaign of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. After all, didn’t President George W. Bush land dramatically on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to announce in front of a roaring crew that “major combat operations in Iraq are over”? Didn’t Coalition Provisional Authority administrator J. Paul Bremer crow “We got ’em!” after Saddam Hussein was apprehended? Surely there can’t be some sour grapes that after ten years the main target of Tora Bora was killed under a Democratic Administration?

But the President’s campaign immediately pushed back on the group’s 20-minute documentary by referring to it as “swift boat tactics,” a reference to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization that very effectively derailed the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004.  Conceptually, Swiftboating is so commonplace now that the campaign spokesman didn’t even have to explain himself, but it’s important to really understand what he’s getting at.  Swiftboating is a modern political tactic but it is not particularly new, nor is it eminently Republican (or American).  When the campaign uses the term, it is shorthand for lying.  But the tactic is more sophisticated than that.

What we know as “swiftboating” is, in modern electoral politics, the tactic of attacking your opponent’s strong point.  This seems counterintuitive, especially since politics is often equated to war or sports, when the frontal assault is usually a quick way to die.  But Karl Rove, the contemporary master of this stroke, once said, “I don’t attack people on their weaknesses.  That usually doesn’t get the job done.  Voters already perceive weaknesses.  You’ve got to go after the other guy’s strengths.” (Emphasis added.)  And the reason is this: with their backbones broken, your opponents can no longer support the weight of their convictions.  In war, attacking a weak point is critical to a breakthrough.  But in politics, if you attack an enemy’s strong point and destroy it, you leave him with nothing at all.

That was Kerry’s critical mistake in 2004.  He held himself up as a war hero against his opponent’s more ambiguous service record.  But his own political history was more complicated than his Naval record in Vietnam — he was outspoken against that war, flip-flopped on Iraq war funding — and left himself vulnerable to an assault on his own, self-selected selling point: “My name is John Kerry, and I am reporting for duty.”  Once doubts were raised, it was hard to claim that he was much better than the alternative.

Again, this is not a uniquely Republican tactic. The “wimp factor” was maliciously applied to George H. W. Bush, a genuine war hero if there ever was one: a volunteer after Pearl Harbor at 19, the youngest naval aviator at 20, shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine after losing his navigator.  And right now, the Obama camp has taken a golden opportunity to attack Romney’s business record.  As with Kerry, all’s fair in politics: Romney is publicly running on his experience as a venture capitalist, and that practically begs for a closer look at what that experience actually was.

If the “swift boat” analogy to the OPSEC challenge is true, the Obama Administration and campaign should simply treat it for what it is, an attack on a strength.  Barack Obama made, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “one of the gutsiest calls I have ever seen a president make,” and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  The previous President and a Republican president would have had to made a similar judgment. A well-trained American serviceman pulled the trigger and the intelligence apparatus delivered the right information for him to act on.  But ultimately — and the OPSEC men should know this — given the mission’s fraught political context, only the President could make that call that brought hell’s torment to the world’s most wanted man.

And the President made the right one — unlike, I would add, so many made before him.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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