Here are a few initial observations. It’s a fast moving story, with many details still unknown, but this is what I can derive from what we do know.
1. President Obama deserves credit for ACTING to kill Osama Bin Laden. This is something that Bill Clinton, distracted in part by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, failed to do aggressively enough, even as Bin Laden steadily launched attacks against U.S. targets overseas. On the other hand, given the intelligence handed to him, it would have been pretty hard for Obama to avoid moving to kill Bin Laden.
2. There needs to be a thorough review of why the special forces operation was judged a superior alternative to just obliterating the compound with missiles. Which strategy had greater chance for success?
Obama reportedly wanted to make sure that Bin Laden’s corpse was identified, but it seems pretty likely that the Pakistanis would have dug him out and put what’s left of him on YouTube.
It appears the desire to avoid collateral damage was a key factor. If bombing had the greater likelihood of success, then the concern with Pakistani lives and world reaction has to be weighed against the risks to U.S. personnel and the chance that the opportunity to kill Bin Laden and prevent future attacks would have been missed.
3. Obama gambled his presidency, and he won. There is little question in my mind that, given the ineptness of some of his other foreign policy moves and the deteriorating respect for America around the world, failure of the mission would have been an unfixable political disaster for the president. The special forces operation was a bold move. Jimmy Carter’s failed mission to retrieve the Iran hostages did him devastating political damage.
4. Success does not at all guarantee major political benefits for Obama. Sure, there will be a bump in the polls. But the unemployment rate is still high, the deficit is not getting serious attention, the Qaddafi operation is a mess, Iran continues to develop its nuclear weapons programs, and so forth. The basic Obama problems remain, and at some level, I think people believed that Bin Laden would eventually be killed anyway and were wondering why it hadn’t happened yet.
5. Obama looked a little crass in seizing credit for this. He deserves credit, but it’s not very presidential to be grabby. Here’s what he said.
Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.
And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.
In a teleconference with reporters early this morning, his advisers were worse.
From the outset of the administration, the President has placed the highest priority in protecting the nation from the threat of terrorism. In line with this, we have pursued an intensified, targeted, and global effort to degrade and defeat al Qaeda. Included in this effort has been a relentless set of steps that we’ve taken to locate and bring Osama bin Laden to justice. Indeed, in the earliest days of the administration, the President formally instructed the intelligence community and his counterterrorism advisors to make the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, as the leader of al Qaeda, as a top priority.
And Obama should have given some credit to Bush. Our wonderful, unparalleled military that killed this monster is more the result of Bush’s efforts than Obamas. It would have been classy and inclusive, but it didn’t happen.