Bin Laden Op: Obama Bets the House

Bin Laden Op: Obama Bets the House
Pete Souza/Flickr

How the president gambled his presidency on a gutsy mission.

Tue May. 3, 2011 3:01 AM PDT

On Monday afternoon, I emailed a former CIA officer who has worked on covert
operations and asked for his take on the Osama bin Laden operation. He
replied:

The [Al Qaeda] system is reeling overseas. Pakistan is terribly
embarrassed, and every AQ guy hiding out right now, has to worry not only
about predator strikes, but 40 Seals and the agency landing on your roof.

He added, “I was at ground zero last night”—meaning CIA headquarters, not
the compound. “It was a wonderful evening.” He called the mission “a
skillful and daring operation that carried considerable risk, but great
gain.”

He was thinking of the special forces that carried out the strike. He could
also have been referring to President Barack Obama. At a press briefing on
Monday, White House counterterrorism aide John Brennan called Obama’s
decision to authorize the operation “one of the most gustiest calls of any
President in recent memory.” Brennan works for the guy, but he was right:
Obama had gambled his presidency on this mission.

Today, it’s all hurrahs—including from Republicans and conservative foreign
policy advocates, even those who routinely denounce Obama as a weak-kneed
bumbler and naïf who practically yearns to undermine the national security
of the nation. For instance, in February, Newt Gingrich slammed the Obama
administration as “a very weak government led by a group of amateurs in
foreign policy.” (Months earlier, he had blasted Obama for possessing a
“Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.) But Monday morning, Gingrich commended
Obama for having “intensified” the US campaign “against our enemies.”

Yet imagine what Gingrich and the rest of the Obama Hate Machine would be
saying had the mission failed. In short, the message would have been: Jimmy
Carter, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter. The right-wingers would have pummeled
Obama, viciously comparing him to the last Democratic president in office
during a botched rescue attempt—the Desert One operation that sought in 1980
to win the freedom of American hostages held in Tehran. That debacle in the
desert, a secret mission that instantly became a PR nightmare, helped define
Carter—fairly or not—as a loser and probably contributed to his loss later
that year to Ronald Reagan.

Without doubt, the planners of the OBL operation were aware of the ghost of
Desert One. Certainly White House officials, including the president, were
braced for an onslaught, should the mission go bad. And there were hundreds
of ways the operation could have gone south. A single bad assumption or
stray bullet could have ended the operation and caused an ignominious
failure in Abbottabad. In such a scenario, whatever the cause, Obama would
have received the blame, no matter if the origin of the screw-up had had
nothing to do with him.

Obama was betting his presidency on the actions of people he didn’t know: US
Navy SEALs working under tough conditions on a high-stakes mission thousands
of miles away. Moreover, Obama and his aides must have known that the stigma
of failure could be far more defining than the aura of success. Though this
major victory for Obama can be expected to boost his prospects all the way
to Election Day, such a triumph could easily be wiped away by an unrelated
setback or failure (say, another economic collapse or terrorist attack). Yet
had the mission flopped, the stench of defeat would have been tough to
overcome between now and November 2012. The potential political liability
was greater than the potential political benefit.

A cautious president overly guided by political concerns would have been
reluctant to ride into such a cost-benefit equation. Yet Obama signed the
order for the mission on Friday—and then proceeded with his schedule, which
included trips to Alabama (to meet with Americans who survived tornadoes)
Cape Canaveral (for a shuttle launch that was scrubbed) and Miami (for an
commencement address), as well as the White House Correspondents’
Association shindig, and a Sunday morning game of golf. In retrospect, his
joke about Donald Trump’s big decisions—whom to fire—is even sharper than it
appeared Saturday night. (I spoke with Obama at a small reception minutes
before the dinner began; there was no tell.)

It must have been a nerve-wracking series of days—even for such a cool
customer. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I
think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday,”
Brennan said. But the episode demonstrates that this president, who is often
accused (on the left) of wimping out of political fights and (on the right)
of too often wringing his hands, is willing to act decisively and take
political chances. Not in every instance. But for certain stakes at certain
times. (Brennan noted that there had been a vigorous debate within the
administration over whether to proceed with the operation—why not bomb
instead?—prior to Obama giving the green light to the higher-risk option.)

The anti-Obama loudmouths who claim that he’s not leadership material or
that he isn’t sufficiently concerned about threats to the United States (or
that he’s a secret, Kenyan-born Muslim socialist who wants to destroy the
United States in order to gain dictatorial powers) are going to have a tough
time selling that swill after this. But they will probably find a pivot
point in the future and return to throwing red herrings at the commander in
chief. Meanwhile, the president, who once earned the nickname “No-Drama
Obama,” showed he was willing to put his own future on the line for a
high-risk action that he deemed necessary for the good of the nation. And
that line was quite a thin one.

David Corn is Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief. For more of his
stories, click here. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn’s RSS
feed.

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