President Obama is reaping the well-deserved credit for ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden. While he typically inflates his role (a president gives the order and then gets out of the way of the professionals, and is not involved hands-on in the execution of the mission), he nonetheless appropriately garners the laurels for a successful mission conducted under his watch. If, in the next year, the National Institutes of Health discovers the cure for cancer, Obama will surely assert that “I directed the NIH to find the cure for cancer” and he will be justly lauded for that as well. The nature of the presidency is that the president gets to claim credit for all the good that happens while he is in office, and accepts the blame for all the bad that happens. Obama, at least, has mastered the former, even if he still struggles with the latter.
The President also needs to learn to share credit with his predecessors, and not project the impression that the world changed on January 20, 2009, and the policies of the Bush Administration immediately became obsolete and discarded. The irony is that Obama’s popularity boost here (however short-lived it might be) results from adopting Bush policies rather than rejecting them. Consider the ways in which the Obama attack on bin Laden was positively Bushian and most un-Obama-like.
First, the United States acted unilaterally. Even though bin Laden had perpetrated terrorist attacks in many countries across the world, Obama did not deem it necessary to consult allies, assemble a coalition, or seek prior approval from international organizations. It was America at its “cowboy” diplomacy best.
Second, the US did not even advise Pakistan that it was sending over the Navy Seal visitors (who did not stop at customs or procure visas). It was a willful, blatant, brazen, and unashamed violation of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity. Here, Obama was forced to follow the Bush policy of treating Pakistan as both ally and adversary. (For sure, there are elements in the Pakistani government that are pro-American, and elements that hate America passionately; hence, the duplicity.) It was a Bushian statement to Pakistan that we will take care of American interests first, and you are “either with us or with the terrorists.” Clearly Obama felt, or was advised, that Pakistan could not be trusted with information of the commando operation, and so he did not trust them. After a similar operation in mid-2008 that resulted in the deaths of Pakistani civilians, Pakistan erupted in rage and the US was denounced by both houses of Parliament in Pakistan (as was Bush by the American left). Nevertheless, Obama proceeded and spurned the need to notify the Pakistanis in advance – a good move considering that Osama bin Laden’s hiding in plain sight outside their main military academy had to be known to the Pakistanis, or their incompetence is so breath-taking that their assistance in the war on terror is inherently worthless.
Third, such an invasion of Pakistani territory was a flagrant violation of international law, for which a Senator Obama (or a community organizer Obama) would have excoriated a President Bush who had orchestrated such an action. It would seem that Obama’s protestations that America is a country of laws, bound and limited by international law, and can no longer be a bully on the world stage all fell by the wayside – quite quickly, and rightly so. When the moral and just are inhibited by the technicalities of law that only serve to protect the wicked, then it is the law that hampers justice and breeds injustice and needs to be ignored or re-defined. Obama has over-lawyered American foreign and military policy – except here, where he adopted a policy of “shoot first, and let the lawyers and diplomats sort it out later.”
Fourth, the “targeted assassination” policy is one that candidate Obama harshly condemned as a violation of due process and human rights. Yet, the plan here was to kill bin Laden unless he meekly surrendered. There was little interest in arresting him and putting him on trial. He was shot, even though he was unarmed. And – Israelis take note – either bin Laden or an aide used a female human shield to protect them from the Navy Seals’ fire. No lawyers, hostage-negotiators or UN officials were called in: the female human shield was simply shot and killed, along with the person she was shielding. No questions asked, and no quarter given. Take that, Richard Goldstone.
Fifth, Obama took the fight directly to the enemy with live forces in a daring operation. In this, he eschewed the endless negotiations that have been his diplomacy and the drone strikes that has been his military strategy. He abandoned the Clinton era policy of bombing empty buildings (think Sudanese pharmaceutical factory after the two US embassy bombings in 1998) and “training sites” from the air – which President Bush had already eliminated as not cost-effective, and not effective, period. Instead, Obama declined to bomb the compound from the air and sent American forces on a “kill or capture” mission – just like the old days.
Sixth, Obama shunned the risk-averse strategies he had previously pursued. It is critical to realize that there was no certainty that bin Laden was hiding in that compound, just an educated guess by the intelligence establishment (that has been notoriously and consistently wrong on a number of matters). Had the raid taken place –and bin Laden not been there, and worse, never been there – Obama would have been lambasted, ridiculed, and derided for unnecessarily violating Pakistani sovereignty and the failure would have stuck to him like the botched rescue of the American hostages in Iran in 1980 stuck to the hopelessly inept Jimmy Carter. But Obama uncharacteristically threw caution to the wind, and acted before crossing all the ‘T’s and dotting all the ‘I’s – a gamble that strong presidents have taken in the past, including his predecessor.
Seventh, it has become clear – although immediately politicized – that early information on the whereabouts of bin Laden was obtained through the enhanced interrogation techniques that were approved by President Bush (in fact, it was obtained while Bush was still president) and thrust aside by President Obama. Further information was garnered from inmates at Guantanamo, both during the Bush and Obama presidencies – a facility that Obama pledged to close down after he put the detainees into the criminal justice system in the United States. Of course, had Obama succeeded, these same detainees – including the sources of information as to the identity of the couriers who led the way to bin Laden – would have lawyered up and said nothing on advice of counsel, and the mission would never have been contemplated.
Eighth, Americans, at least for the moment, heard again talk of “terror,” “terrorism,” and “radical Islam” from the White House. Those locutions – legacies of the Bush Administration – were banned by Obama and his minions, who were directed to use strange and ambiguous formulations such as “extremist violence,” apparently of unknown provenance. We also again heard from an American President who spoke of “justice,” put American interests first, acted like a superpower, and was unapologetic about the morality of his actions – just like the old days.
It is no wonder that the American left is apoplectic, and perhaps not surprising that even Obama evinced no joy at this success. His embrace of Bush policies, and the attendant popularity, hits too close to home, for his political career is rooted in overcoming and reversing the Bush “failures.” It doesn’t look good if Obama’s major foreign policy achievement recalls his predecessor’s no-holds barred determination and unabashed projection of American power.
The only thing missing was a statement that Obama prayed for the success of the mission, a staple of the Bush years. As reported, after final orders were given on Sunday, CIA Director Leon Panetta went to church to pray, and President Obama went to play nine holes of golf. So be it. But for America, and those who love good and hate evil, George W. Obama did the right thing in the right way at the right time.