Sunday, May 15, 2011


Stuck in an airport, I just saw another Democratic strategist (or maybe it was a former administration official) praise President Obama for the "gutsy" raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Rest assured, that adjective has been focus group-tested and will make its way into countless campaign commercials for the 2012 presidential election.

And yes, Mr. Obama deserves credit for the call. Sending a small force of SEALs and intel operatives into the heart of Pakistan--in search of the world's most wanted terrorist--took some nerve. Plenty can go wrong during that type of operation, as evidenced by the mechanical failure of a stealth helicopter that resulted in a hard landing inside bin Laden's compound, and eventual abandonment of the craft. Remnants of the chopper are reportedly on their way to China, which has an obvious interest in our stealth technology.

But how hard was the decision to go after OBL? Review the decision points faced by the Commander-in-Chief and judge for yourself.

First, it's worth remembering that the search for the Al Qaida leader never stopped. Enhanced interrogation techniques, used on 9-11 mastermind Khalin Sheik Mohammed, provided the first clues about a trusted courier, used to ferry information to and from bin Laden. Questioning of other Al Qaida detainees provided other clues, sending intelligence analysts on a massive search of existing databases, in an effort to learn the identity of the mystery courier.

It's not clear if Mr. Obama was aware of this effort. Running down leads and connecting the dots represents part of the daily grind of intelligence analysis. But we do know that the President was immediately informed when the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a phone call from the courier, which provided the first confirmation of his identity, his ties to the compound and the possible presence of bin Laden.

Armed with this information, the decision for any president is clear. Given the most promising lead on OBL's whereabouts in years, you instruct your intelligence community to spare no effort in running it to ground. The compound quickly moved to the top of the intel "collection deck," receiving maximum attention from imagery satellites, SIGINT assets, HUMINT agents and other intel resources. The CIA even established a covert observation post in bin Laden's neighborhood, located less than a mile from Pakistan's national military academy.

Within a few weeks, the effort yielded more information. Analysts identified a tall figure who took regular strolls in the compound's courtyard. Nick-named "The Pacer," the man bore a strong resemblance to the Al Qaida leader, providing another hint that bin Laden's lair had finally been discovered.

How did the President react? We'll probably get the blow-by-blow in Mr. Obama's memoirs, but it's safe to say he pressed the spooks for additional details. By March of this year, administration officials had strong reason to believe bin Laden was at the compound, and they were debating the best way to target him. Senior military officers favored a drone strike but the President opted for a commando raid, believing it would provide conclusive "proof-of-death" (if successful).

President Obama decided to go ahead with the mission after months of intensive intelligence collection and surveillance, using the full resources of the U.S. military and the intel community. True, we never had total assurance that bin Laden was at the compound--or that the raid would succeed--but the available information suggested a golden opportunity was at hand.

Against that backdrop, did the President really have any other choice? While there were justifiable reasons to delay or even abort the operation, but those negatives were obviously outweighed by the positives. While Mr. Obama's supporters laud his decision as "gusty," I would use other terms, such as "logical" and "deliberate."

From my perspective, gutsy is better used to describe presidential choices when the odds are even longer. Lincoln's decision to take a stand against slavery and preserve the union--even if it meant a civil war--was gutsy. So was Harry Truman's choice to use the atomic bomb against Japan (against the counsel of his most senior advisers) with no guarantee the weapon would actually work. John F. Kennedy risked global humiliation when he vowed to beat the Russians to the moon within a decade. And yes, it took a fair amount of guts for George W. Bush to double down on Iraq when wise men (and women), in and out of government, urged him to cut and run.

History will ultimately judge the "gutsiness" of Barack Obama's call on bin Laden. For now, his decision-making on the raid strikes us as precise, methodical and appropriate. Admirable qualities, indeed. Now, if Mr. Obama would only show the same traits in his economic policies.


sykes.1 said...

You are, of course, assuming that Obama actually made the decision and that he was not confronted by a fait accompli by his staff, Panetta et al.

Bob said...

Another way to look at the decision is to compare what other contemporaries would likely to have done. Would President Bush have made such a 'gutsy' call? Most assuredly as we know he initiated the search and promised UBL 'dead or alive'.

What about Senator McCain? Would he have used Navy Special Forces in a similar manner had he been elected President? Based on his statements these last 9 years (and him being a navy guy), most certainly.

Other than President Carter, is there any former President in our generation that would not have ordered UBL killed if not captured?

Probably not. That being the case, I do not see the call being 'gutsy'. Describing it as 'logical' is a good description.

davod said...

Maybe I read the reports wrong, but I thought they were sure of the location in August last year, and were ready to gi some time ago. Even at the late stage Obama waited 16 hours before giving the go ahead.