This is one of the problems with new media. Sometimes you spout off before you have taken in enough information and processed it. After the Obama administration analyzed intel for eight months, and STILL only had a little better than a 50-50 supposition that bin Laden was in the house, maybe I should have taken a little more time to pass judgment. After all, my original training was in a medium when I could take all day, or — in the case of my columns — all week to make up my mind. Consequently, I can only think of one or two columns ever that I later regretted writing.
Blogging is different. I try to make sure I really mean what I say here, too, but sometimes my interlocutors get my dander right up, as Professor Elemental would say, and I give ill-considered answers.
Such is the case with my reaction to a comment by our old friend Bud the other night. Here I was very pleased with President Obama’s performance in the bin Laden case, and saying so, when I read this by Bud:
Let’s not forget the tireless work the president did as commander in chief to bring this operation to a successful conclusion. It really does matter who our leader is. Thankfully we have someone competent in charge.
… it tapped me on a sore spot. The comment itself was pretty innocuous by Bud standards, but in it I read the ghosts of so many other comments by Bud along the lines of EVERYTHING George W. Bush ever did was wrong, especially invading Iraq, and so I responded:
Bud, we should all give President Obama full credit for playing his leadership role well. But don’t make the political mistake of thinking this happened because he is president. This is more about stellar work by nameless, ground-level people in our military and our much-maligned intelligence services.
There is one sense in which Obama was a critical factor, though. It’s complicated. I think I’ll do a separate post about it…
That separate post was the one in which I argued that it was Obama’s laudably bellicose attitude toward going after our enemies hiding in Pakistan that made a positive difference here….
And as I was writing that, my sense that Obama being president WAS critical to the way this happened started to take hold. Not that Bud was right or anything; I still object to the way he characterized it, especially later when he said, “I find it so refreshing to have a competent, bright, hard-working leader in charge. He’s not rashly going in to places like Iran and Libya. Not sure why we still have troops in Iraq but otherwise Obama is doing an outstanding job keeping our foreign involvements to a minimum.”
But that’s quibbling over personal quirks.
Bottom line is, the more I’ve thought about it the last couple of days, then more I have decided that on the MAIN, unadorned point, Bud’s right: There are elements to what happened that are uniquely Obama. Not that it wouldn’t have happened under other presidents — JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. — but maybe not exactly this way, or this successfully.
I was thinking that this morning when reading The Wall Street Journal’s detailed story on how the raid unfolded, “U.S. Rolled Dice in bin Laden Raid:”
An early favorite: a bombing raid. That approach would minimize risk to American troops and maximize the likelihood of killing the residents of the compound. But it might also have destroyed any proof bin Laden was there.
A helicopter raid would be more complex, but more likely to deliver confirmation. Some officials were wary of repeating a fiasco like “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia, when U.S. forces were killed after a botched raid on a warlord… [By the way, one quibble on this story: That last sentence was inaccurate. The raid was NOT on the warlord, but to grab some of his lieutenants, and it was successful, not “botched.” The lieutenants were neatly grabbed and the operation was essentially over when the militia managed to hit two helicopters with RPGs.]
On April 19, Mr. Panetta told the president the CIA believed bin Laden was there. Other advisers briefed Mr. Obama on preparations for an assault, including the outcomes of the dress rehearsals. Mr. Obama told them to “assume it’s a go for planning purposes and that we had to be ready,” an administration official said.
That same day, Mr. Obama gave provisional approval for the commando-style helicopter assault—which was launched from Jalalabad, Afghanistan—despite the added risk. Senior U.S. officials said the need to get a positive identification on bin Laden became the deciding factor.
You’ll notice that Bill Clinton wasn’t on my list above. That’s because I’m practically certain that he would have opted for the bombing. And the more I think about it, the less I’m positive about the other presidents.
Whereas Obama made exactly the right call. The Seal raid was the way to go. And the president was completely right not to tell the Pakistanis — another point where I have my doubts about some of those earlier presidents (for instance, Bush pere was all about some multilateralism). There is a certain confidence — something important in a leader — in Obama’s choosing the riskier option in the absence of certainty, and then, once HE was satisfied that this was bin Laden who was killed, having the body buried at sea. The president was saying, LET the conspiracy theorists claim it wasn’t him — I know it was, and I’ve eliminated his body or his grave becoming an object for our enemies to rally around.
The president may be a lousy bowler, but he makes good calls in a tough situation. That is my considered opinion — now that I’ve taken time to consider.
By the way, I might not have decided to write about this change of mind — it happened sort of organically the more I read, rather than in a “Eureka” moment — if I hadn’t read two other items in the WSJ this morning. As it happens, they were opinion pieces by people who are as firmly entrenched on the right as Bud is on the left. But whereas Bud’s reflexive anti-Bush rhetoric put me off from being convinced of his point (that, and the fact that I just didn’t have enough info yet to reach that conclusion), their unadulterated praise of someone they usually criticize really drove the point home in a way that not even I could miss it.
Bret Stephens’ piece was headlined, “Obama’s Finest Hour:”
Thane’s point isn’t that vengeance is better than justice. It’s that there can be no true justice without vengeance. Oddly enough, this is something Barack Obama, Chicago liberal, seems to better grasp than George W. Bush, Texas cowboy.
The former president was fond of dilating on the point, as he put it just after 9/11, that “ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice.” What on Earth did that mean? Of course we sought revenge. “Ridding the world of evil,” Mr. Bush’s other oft-stated ambition, was nonsense if we didn’t make a credible go of ridding the world of the very specific evil named Osama bin Laden.
For all of Mr. Bush’s successes—and yes, there were a few, including the vengeance served that other specific evil known as Saddam Hussein and those Gitmo interrogations that yielded bin Laden’s location—you can trace the decline of his presidency from the moment he said, in March 2002, that “I really don’t care [where bin Laden is]. It’s not that important.”…
Good points, although I may not be totally with him on the virtue of “vengeance” alone. Note that he makes a point similar to one I made yesterday, as my mind was starting to change (sometimes, and this may be hard to understand, I change my mind as I’m writing something — on the blog, you can sometimes see it happen, as I argue with myself) — that when it comes to Pakistan, Obama is more of a go-it-alone cowboy than Bush. Which to me is a good thing.
Then there was William McGurn’s column, which was about how Republican candidates (obsessed as they are with fiscal matters) have a long way to go to catch up with Obama on foreign policy:
It’s not just that Barack Obama is looking strong. For the moment, at least, he is strong. In the nearly 10 years since our troops set foot in Afghanistan, a clear outcome remains far from sight, and many Americans have wearied of the effort. As President Obama reminded us Sunday night, getting bin Laden doesn’t mean our work there is done—but his success in bringing the world’s most hunted man to justice does reinvigorate that work.
It does so, moreover, in a way that few of Mr. Obama’s recent Democratic predecessors in the Oval Office have matched. The killing of bin Laden was no one-shot missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory suspected of making chemical weapons, as ordered by Bill Clinton. Nor was it a failed hostage rescue in Iran à la Jimmy Carter. Instead, it was a potent combination of American force and presidential decisiveness.
These are the kinds of hard decisions that presidents have to make, where the outcome is likely to be either spectacular success or equally spectacular failure. For taking the risks that would paralyze others, and for succeeding where others have failed, the president and his team have earned the credit they are now getting.
Also good points. And hearing such good points made by people who don’t like the president nearly as much as I do made a big impression on me.
So in the end, I find myself agreeing with those guys, and with Bud, on this point: Having Obama as president made a big difference in this case.