Myth vs. Fact on bin Laden Raid

May 3, 2012

As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a surprising debate has broken out about who deserves credit for the raid’s success.  First and foremost credit goes to the men and women of the military and intelligence services whose tireless and dangerous work brought bin Laden to justice. But policy-making, organizational management and decision-making at the top is important as well, and it is here that President Obama demonstrated effective counterterrorism.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan describes Romney’s attacks on President Obama’s national security accomplishments as “puzzling, to say the least,” explaining that, “Romney’s position—or, more accurate, his pose—on these issues is so preposterous, one can only surmise that he can’t be serious. More likely, he and his proxies in the right-wing press are adopting Karl Rove’s strategy of attacking the opponent’s strengths.” This explains the need for creating myths around the events of the raid, ignoring reality. The political posing and attacks distract from the larger national security conversation – even as that conversation shifts to how leadership and management must now shift to meet tomorrow’s challenges in a post-bin Laden world.

Myth: Success represents a continuation of Bush administration efforts and policies.

Fact: A 2009 change in approach to combatting terrorism was key to what followed. Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar who served in the Clinton and Bush White House, lays out: “Ten facts that tell the true story: First, the Bush administration moved assets to Iraq away from the search for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, in 2006, the Bush administration closed the Bin Laden unit at the CIA in a reorganization. Third, Bush changed his rhetoric from wanting Bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ to publicly minimizing his importance. (Mitt Romney followed this pattern, saying in 2007, ‘It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.’) Fourth, in 2007, candidate Obama said he would send troops into Pakistan to get Bin Laden, unilaterally if necessary, and was criticized by leading Republicans (Romney included) for saying so. Fifth, after he took office, Obama directed an increased priority be given to getting Bin Laden. Sixth, the President personally participated in repeated high-level meetings on his aggressive new strategy for getting Al Qaeda and its leaders in Pakistan. Seventh, Obama ordered a dramatic increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, wiping out Al Qaeda leaders and making it almost impossible for Bin Laden’s senior commanders to operate there. Eighth, the President rejected cabinet members’ advice and ordered the raid that killed Bin Laden to go ahead. Ninth, it was the commander-in-chief who ordered that additional helicopters be made part of the operation, a decision that turned out to be crucial. Tenth, Bin Laden is dead.” [Richard Clarke, 5/2/12]

Myth: Choosing to conduct the raidwas an obvious decision.

Fact: Advisors disagreed on how and whether to conduct the mission. Fred Kaplan of Slate discusses new reporting on the details that went into the decision making process: “Far from the no-brainer that Romney depicts, the secret, high-level discussions leading up to the raid were fraught with intense debate and uncertainty—and Obama’s final decisions, on both whether and how to attack, went against some of his top advisers’ recommendations.’ Vice President Joe Biden revealed a few months ago that he had urged Obama not to mount the assault. [Peter] Bergen and [Graham] Allison report that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joined him in the dissent… Once Obama decided to attack, an equally weighty debate took place over how to go about it. Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and widely known at the time as ‘Obama’s favorite general’), recommended dropping a few dozen 2,000-pound bombs from a B-2 bomber. Others favored going in with missile-carrying drones. Others, however, advised sending in SEAL Team Six, noting that an aerial attack might kill lots of civilians—perhaps even some in neighboring houses—and, in any case, would preclude certain knowledge that the strike had actually killed Bin Laden. Obama sided with the advocates of the far riskier raid.”

Kaplan further explains the risks involved both on the ground with the operation, but also the political repercussions of failure: “In the weeks leading up to the decision, a group of counterterrorism officials, after conducting a ‘red-team’ exercise of what could go wrong in such an attack, estimated that there was only a 40 percent chance Osama Bin Laden was actually in the compound. The CIA put the odds at 60 percent.” [Fred Kaplan, 5/1/12]

Myth: Any president would have made the same call.

Fact: President Bush didn’t and candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney said they wouldn’t. In 2007, during his failed presidential bid, Mitt Romney specifically criticized Barack Obama for making the promise that he would later follow through on. Reuters reported at the time, “Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized Democrat Barack Obama on Friday for vowing to strike al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary as the Obama camp issued a strident defense of his plan…. ‘I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours,’… Romney told reporters on the campaign trail.” When  John McCain was asked by Larry King, “If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?” McCain clearly answered “Larry, I’m not going to go there and here’s why, because Pakistan is a sovereign nation.” Even president Bush said that bin Laden was “just one man” and “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.” [Reuters, 8/4/12. George Bush via Think Progress, 5/2/11. John McCain via CNN, 7/28/08]

What We’re Reading

West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center released declassified documents from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Chen Guangcheng indicated that he now wants U.S. officials to help get him and his family to the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clarified that the United States seeks to foster stability in Central Asia by encouraging trade in the region.

South Korea says it is satisfied with the latest action by the UN Security Council against North Korea.

A Russian military leader asserts Moscow is ready to use pre-emptive force if the U.S. moves forward with a divisive plan for a missile defense system based in Central Europe.

Israel’s plan to proceed with early elections suggests that its threatened attack against Iran will likely not take place in the near future.

Peru’s President Ollanta Humala plans to meet with Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Japan to discuss natural disaster preparedness and technology cooperation.

France’s two presidential contenders continue to compete over undecided French voters.

An early morning bomb caused an explosion near the European Union’s branch in Argentina.

Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega has been honored with a PEN award.

Commentary of the Day

Frank Jannuzi argues Obama made the right choice on Chen Guangcheng but his case highlights how much progress China needs to make on human rights.

Juliette Kayyem writes that al Qaeda exists but is on the wane and the administration’s pivot back to a singular focus in Afghanistan is key to keeping it that way.

Ari Berman suggests Romney is loath to mention Bush on the campaign trail, for obvious reasons, but today they sound like ideological soul mates on foreign policy.

 

 

 

 

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