OK, my Corleone metaphor aside, let’s address the actual political question before us: Does Barack Obama deserve any particular credit for “getting” Osama bin Laden, or would “anyone have done what he did?”
This is actually a very important question. When deciding who should be one’s president going forward, there is no more important question than whether he would be an effective commander in chief (or in the case of the incumbent, whether he is an effective commander in chief).
Republicans, including some who should know better, are essentially saying Obama did nothing that anyone else wouldn’t have done. They are wrong. I initially thought as they did — not that I wanted to take anything away from the president, but because I thought it was true — but as I read and learned more about the decision-making process leading to the raid on Abbottabad, I changed my mind.
Last night, I inadvertently saw a few seconds of TV “news.” John McCain was saying that of course Mitt Romney would have done the same thing, or something along those lines.
For his part, outrageously, Mitt Romney has said that “even Jimmy Carter” would have ordered the SEALs into the bin Laden compound. I’m going to pause and count to 10 before proceeding after this latest reflexive GOP expression of contempt toward my man Jimmy. (And while I’m counting, I’ll just share with you this HuffPost headline, “Jimmy Carter, Seven Years as Navy Officer; Mitt Romney, 0 Years in Military, 0 Years Foreign Policy Experience.” Effin’ A.)
Well, as it happens, we have strong reason to believe that Jimmy Carter would have ordered such an operation. He actually did order a roughly comparable one. It failed, as military operations sometimes do. (The one Obama ordered could have failed, too, at a number of critical points. That’s one reason he deserves credit for having the guts to give the order.) But he ordered it. It was a big deal that he ordered it. His secretary of state resigned over it.
But would “anyone else” have done the same? There is little reason to think so. It would have been Bill Clinton’s M.O., for instance, to have flipped a couple of cruise missiles in that direction. And as we saw in Kosovo, he had a predilection for air power rather than boots on the ground. But… and this is a huge “but”… is it fair to make the assumption that the real-life Bill Clinton of the 1990s would have been as reticent, as cautious, post-9/11? It’s impossible to say.
What we do know is that in real life, there was sharp disagreement and debate in the Obama administration over how to proceed — whether to believe the assumptions based on incomplete intelligence (for doing that, George W. Bush earned the never-ending “Bush lied” canard), whether to act on them at all, whether to send in troops at all or simply bomb the compound, whether to send a joint force or a coherent Navy team, whether to notify the Pakistanis or just go in, whether to try to capture bin Laden or go in intending to kill him, whether to bring back his body or send it to sleep with the fishes.
And when I say debate within the administration, I don’t mean between what the Republicans would characterized as the Democratic sissy politicos, but among the professionals — the generals and admirals and Sec. Gates.
And at critical stages, the president and the president alone seems to have made very tough calls. And the right ones. Most importantly, he decided to send in men rather than just bombs. That way, he could make sure, he could minimize collateral damage — and the U.S. could reap an intelligence bonanza.
That took nerves not everyone would have. So many things could have gone wrong doing it this way — and nearly did. In what had to feel like a replay of Jimmy Carter’s debacle, we lost a helicopter. But having learned that lesson, we had backups.
Some Republicans would have you believe that giving Obama credit would take away somehow from the superb, almost superhuman job that the SEALs and the rest of the military and CIA team did. Nothing could be further from the truth. It stands as one of the most amazing coup de main operations of the past century. They performed as brilliantly as the Israelis did at Entebbe, for instance. But they had their roles to play, and the commander in chief had his. And all involved did their jobs remarkably well.
I refer you to two posts I wrote last year, as I came to the conclusion that Barack Obama personally deserved credit for the leadership calls that led to our killing bin Laden. Here they are:
- Changing my mind — maybe we DID get Osama because of Obama
- Again, maybe Obama DOES deserve major credit for getting bin Laden
In invite you to go back and read them, to see how I reached a conclusion very different from the line we’re hearing from Republicans now.
There is no way of knowing whether Mitt Romney would have made the same calls. I suspect that he might have erred on the side of caution, but I could be completely wrong about that. He might have acted in exactly the same manner. But what I know is that Barack Obama did — and that what he did is not just “what anyone would have done.”