The President's Triumph: Obama Gets His Man
May 05, 2011
By Christian Caryl
The U.S. Special Operations Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden drew on the efforts of a large team of people from myriad branches of government working in locations around the world. All of them -- including many whose roles may never become public -- deserve a share of the credit.
Yet it seems likely that it's the most public figure in the operation who stands to gain the greatest benefit from its success. And if many of the experts are right, he's earned it.
That man is President Barack Obama, who gave the order for the assault to proceed on the morning of April 29, then calmly made his way through a weekend of official events without ever giving away the slightest hint that the most momentous chapter in his presidency was already moving toward its climax.
No sooner was the operation's successful outcome revealed than Obama began to harvest praise from Americans in all walks of life -- and from all points of the political spectrum. Those congratulating him included some his harshest critics, like ex-Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, as well as current rivals, including likely Republican presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney.
A somewhat less famous American, who gave her name as Stephanie, also describes herself as a conservative. Yet there she was, celebrating the president in front of the White House on the night of May 1, shortly after the news was announced.
"President Bush and the intelligence forces and the military did amazing work, but President Obama is the commander in chief -- he is the commander in chief and he ordered this operation," Stephanie said. "I am for the first time proud of our president. This is an amazing achievement."
Praise, But For What?
But as the euphoria fades and politics gradually returns to business as usual, it's worth asking a simple question: What, precisely, are we praising the president for?
Certainly luck played its part -- as it does in every operation of this type. And to a large extent the enormous store of hard-won experience gained by the U.S. military and intelligence community in the years after 9/11 formed the foundation upon which Obama and his national security team were able to build.
Yet a closer analysis suggests that Obama has every right to claim ownership of a national security operation that crucially relied on a combination of bureaucratic discipline, careful competence, and the willingness to accept risk at the moment when it counted.
To Peter Singer, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the word that comes to mind is "professionalism" -- a virtue not always highly regarded in a city that has sometimes been known to prefer "gut instinct" to methodical preparation.
"It feels like a very professional approach," Singer says. "We [in Washington] often critique things that actually are very professional. This was a process that combined both dotting all the 'i's' and crossing all the 't's,' but then it culminated with making a tough decision, and ultimately that's the role of the commander in chief."
Judging by the accounts that have so far emerged from the White House, the administration learned the crucial piece of information -- the location of bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad -- in August 2010. In the months that followed, the Obama administration organized an expansive but painstaking effort to capitalize on that knowledge. Starting in March of this year, Obama conducted five National Security Council meetings devoted solely to the possibility of zeroing in on the Al-Qaeda leader.
Ridicule From Opponents
The August 2010 decision to press forward with the hunt for Al-Qaeda's leader came at a moment when the contours of Obama's distinctive approach to the war on terror had already fully emerged. No sooner had Obama taken office, for example, then he dramatically stepped up air strikes on Al-Qaeda and other terrorist targets inside Pakistan by unmanned drones. In 2008, George W. Bush's last full year in office, the number of strikes was 33, according to statistics published by the New America Foundation think tank in Washington. In 2009, the number went up to 53; in 2010 it soared to 118.
That policy in turn reflected statements made by candidate Obama during the presidential race in 2007 and 2008, when he declared that, if elected, he would allow U.S. forces in Afghanistan to stage raids against Al-Qaeda across the border into Pakistan, even if Washington's relations with Islamabad were to suffer as a result. On August 1, 2007, for example, Obama said: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan's] President Musharraf won't act, we will."
It was a stance that earned him ridicule from his opponents, who cited his statements as evidence of inexperience in foreign affairs. His critics at the time included both Republicans like Romney as well as his rivals for the nomination of his own Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton, now Obama's secretary of state, and Joe Biden, his vice president. Now Romney is lauding the president's decision to order the daring commando raid against bin Laden, while Clinton and Biden both played roles in the effort to carry it out -- "ironically," as Singer notes, in light of the past.
Early on in his term, Obama also made good on a campaign pledge to shift the focus of the United States' counterterrorism effort away from Iraq and back to Afghanistan. In a reversal of Bush-era policies, Obama gave the order to move intelligence assets and Special Operations Forces back into Afghanistan. Michael O'Hanlon, also of the Brookings Institution, points out that Obama's decision to devote new energy to the fight in Afghanistan was a crucial precondition for the raid that ultimately killed bin Laden.
Obama, he says, was more intent on pursing the war in Afghanistan than his predecessor George W. Bush, and Afghanistan "was the launching pad for this operation." The Navy SEALs who attacked bin Laden's compound flew in from a base in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad -- a city that the United States might not have had under adequate control had it not been for the Obama administration's reemphasis on the war there.
"And that's what where had our forces. We could not have overflown all of Afghanistan from the sea with helicopters safely," O'Hanlon says. "We needed to have a robust place in Afghanistan from which to mount this, and I think Obama gets some credit for that."
Shadowy Entity Known As JSOC
But Obama didn't revise everything he inherited from Bush. He was fully prepared to continue the trend toward integration of military and civilian intelligence capabilities that began in the Bush era. According to experts, the Obama administration also expanded the role and funding of a shadowy entity called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a Pentagon organization that brings together elite special forces from all the service branches for highly classified missions in intimate collaboration with intelligence agencies.
A blog post by Washington think-tanker Brian Katulis in January 2010 observed that JSOC was "playing an increasingly central role in U.S. national security." (Katulis went on to call for greater congressional scrutiny of the command's doings. It is not clear whether he got his wish.) Reporter Jeremy Scahill, writing the same year, noted that JSOC was operating in 75 countries by 2010 -- up from 60 under the Bush administration. Soon some of JSOC's forces would be gearing up for the ultimate mission. When the order to strike against bin Laden finally came, it was two units of elite Navy SEALs under JSOC command that finally did the job.
One could argue that Obama was merely following the evolving logic of the war on terror. But there can be little doubt that Obama's skills as a manager came into full play as the intelligence increasingly corroborated the possibility of bin Laden's presence in the Abbottabad compound. By all accounts, the various cogs of national security machinery meshed smoothly under Obama's supervision. Bureaucratic discipline was exemplary, notably free of the infighting between competing departments that, arguably, hobbled planning for the occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush. Not a single leak emerged from any of the dozens of people involved in the planning process -- a striking indication that all the institutional players stuck carefully to their assigned rules.
'Credit For Guts'
And yet, when it finally came to the crunch, the thoughtful Obama showed that he was also capable of placing a risky but calculated bet. Throughout his political career Obama has built on his image of steady unflappability (notwithstanding the critics who like to deride him as a cerebral college professor who lacks the common touch). On April 29, however, having listened to the options presented to him for the raid on bin Laden's compound, Obama chose the riskiest: a helicopter assault that put the lives of dozens of Americans on the line. White House sources have said that exactly half of the advisers present at the final meeting agreed with the president's decision -- not exactly the stuff of reassuring consensus.
"You've got to give Obama credit for guts," says Dov Zakheim, a senior Pentagon official under President George W. Bush. "He could have gone with the bombing route. Instead, he chose the route that was a failure in Desert One and that didn't look very good in Somalia, and he went that route and it worked." (Desert One was the codename for the rendezvous point in the Iranian desert for Operation Eagle Claw -- President Jimmy Carter's disastrous attempt to free the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980; Bill Clinton pulled U.S. forces out of Somalia in 1993 after U.S. special forces suffered heavy losses there during an attempt to capture a local warlord.)
Singer notes that Obama could have easily opted for alternatives -- the most likely being a strike by a B-2 stealth bomber that would have easily obliterated bin Laden's house. But extracting bin Laden's remains from the rubble would have been nearly impossible, meaning that the attack would have left behind a lingering source of massive uncertainty.
"But if they had done so, they would have not had any risk to U.S. forces," Singer says. "There would have been no boots on the ground. And the risks in terms of complications for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship would have been probably less again by not having boots on the ground. But it wouldn't have been as effective an operation. It might have leveled the building, but it wouldn't have been able to confirm that they got bin Laden. That kind of decision is one that previous presidents have shied away from."
Obama's decision was, in the end, vindicated by the carefully choreographed actions of the SEALs, who spent a full 40 minutes carefully navigating the interior labyrinth of the house until they finally entered the inner sanctum where the Al-Qaeda chief was about to meet his fate.
The Americans suffered no casualties, and took with them not only bin Laden's body but also a potential intelligence bonanza: computer data and documents that could yet lead the Americans to other surviving Al-Qaeda leaders. Christopher Preble, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, points out that a bombing raid would not only have eliminated any opportunity to confirm bin Laden's identity but would have also robbed the Americans of that collateral trove of information.
Obama's victory does not make him invulnerable in the next U.S. presidential election. The U.S. economy could still hold many an unpleasant surprise for the president between now and November 2012. But one thing seems certain: In the wake of the successful hunt for bin Laden, it will be well nigh impossible to dismiss Obama as an amateur in matters of national security.
Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief Washington editor
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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