Over the weekend I heard an interview with the author of what we can only assume will be one of dozens of books written now and in the near future about the killing of Osama bin Laden. One (throwaway) comment the author made was so stunning that I immediately set out to verify it when I arrived at home.
A little background. The CIA claims that it first discovered the bin Laden house in Abbottabad in 2010 through a combination of satellite images – the house stood out as newly built, very large, and "obviously custom-built to hide someone of significance" – and by following a known al-Qaeda courier to the location. Over the next year the CIA used undercover agents stationed in a safe house in Abbottabad to conduct surveillance on the compound. The author being interviewed described the results of their efforts – and I found this verified in the Washington Post – as follows:
Despite what officials described as an extraordinarily concentrated collection effort leading up to the operation, no U.S. spy agency was ever able to capture a photograph of bin Laden at the compound before the raid or a recording of the voice of the mysterious male figure whose family occupied the structure’s top two floors. Indeed, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden employed remarkable discipline in his efforts to evade detection.
Seems innocent enough, right?
Except it means that Barack Obama essentially put his entire political life on the line here by ordering the raid (and rejecting Clinton-like options such as cruise missile attacks) without anyone being able to state with certainty that bin Laden was actually there. No one had seen him. No one had heard him. No one snapped a picture. Sure, the circumstantial evidence suggested that he was living there. But they didn't know. Obama might be criticized for making a foolish rush to judgment based on limited information. I'm more inclined to look at it as a "balls of steel" moment that no one – least of all Republicans – gave him any credit for.
Imagine this scenario: a bunch of CIA/military operatives invade a foreign country unannounced. They assault this compound. Things don't go quite as well as planned. American soldiers are killed. A helicopter crashes. Civilians are killed by a stray explosion. And bin Laden isn't there. It turns out that the house was hiding some run-of-the-mill opium dealer or Russian mobster. The raid combines huge losses with zero gains. Can you imagine the public reaction? The FOX News reaction? The House GOP's reaction? Obama would have been hung in effigy and I'm certain someone would have suggested hanging him in the flesh as well. It would have made Jimmy Carter and "Desert One" look like a rousing success in comparison.
That's not what happened, of course. Bin Laden was there, no American casualties were reported, and the mission went, despite the loss of one helicopter, without a hitch for the most part. It was a much bigger risk than anyone depicted it at the time, and since then the Obama people have done next to nothing to play up the "This was actually a pretty big goddamn risk, if you must know" angle. No aircraft carrier / flight suit parades. Just a hint of gloating. Had a Republican made the same decision under the same circumstances the media would be soiling themselves in awe and Congress would be preparing to chisel him into Mount Rushmore. But it wasn't a Republican; it was the brown guy who really isn't American to begin with.
Anyone who says that Obama didn't take a risk, didn't make a bold decision, or didn't really do anything of note ("Why give him credit? All he did was give the order!") exists in a fantasy world. It puzzled me in the immediate aftermath how the argument that Obama deserved no credit could be plausible…I mean, it makes sense only inasmuch as the right wing wouldn't have blamed Obama had the mission failed, i.e.,it made no sense at all. Whatever your opinion about the value of the objective or the moral implications of de facto assassination missions, it is undeniable that Obama put his entire presidency on the line there – and he did so with much less information than most of us realized at the time. Despite the great lengths our military and intelligence agencies go to creating an image of omnipotence, they basically gave the White House a photo of a house and a hearty, "Yeah we're pretty sure he's in there." And then the President approved the highest risk, most dangerous option presented to him for dealing with bin Laden.
That deserves a slow clap. I have to say, this actually bumped Obama up a little in my estimation – not because he "killed Osama, wooo!" but because he took an enormous risk to achieve something he promised the nation he would try to do and he didn't even get much credit for it. Nor did he harp on the details, on the magnitude of the risk, to harangue the media and public into applauding louder for what he had done. He ran out on the tightrope with no safety net beneath him; if this operation went bad it would have gone really, irretrievably bad. He did it anyway, and yet the two George Bushes are the presidents that supposedly approached foreign policy with a steely-eyed resolve that liberal pussies could never understand.