American Presidents, Intelligence, Obama, September 11

The Gutsy Call

Getting Bin Laden

Of all the remarkable images over the last 24 hours or so, the tense scene in the White House Situation Room Sunday night tells most of what we need to know about the remarkable operation to capture or kill the evil mind behind Al Qaeda.

The President’s assistant for counter terrorism, John Brennan, called Barack Obama’s decision to send Navy Seals after Bin Laden “one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.” I’ve been wondering if there has been another moment – the gutsiet moment – in any recent presidency. I think not.

The famous Doolittle Raid on Japan in April 1942 gave the country a sense of hope in the wake of the military disaster at Pearl Harbor. The raid was planned and carried out after Franklin Roosevelt told his military advisers shortly after the Hawaii disaster that he would like to see the Japanese home island bombed as a morale boost. The raid was of little military significance, but it did have great morale and propoganda value.

George H.W. Bush launched the 1989 invasion of Panama to oust the tin horn dictator Manuel Noriega who was captured, held as a war prisoner and eventually tried and convicted. Hardly a transformative event, the invasion was roundly criticized even as Noriega’s crimes were exposed.

There are bound to be some comparison between the Bin Laden operation and the failed effort in 1980 to rescue the Americans held hostage in Iran. The very public failure of that mission damaged American prestige and undoubtedly contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s re-election lost later that year. The raid served to reinforce an image of Carter’s presidency as something less than successful.

Think for a moment about what the reaction would have been had the incredible operation Obama ordered last Friday not worked as it did. We’d be seeing stories today about the failure of the White House and the president to carefully calibrate the odds of going into Pakistan and not coming back. What if a helicopter with a dozen Seals had been shot down and American lives lost? What if Obama had opted for a “surgical strike” with a Predator drone or a Cruise missile that missed or even hit the mark, but could not provide positive identification of the target that the operation has produced?

Obama must have known that the only way to get Bin Laden was to confront him face-to-face with a young American who could capture him, or if that became impossible, kill him. Without Navy Seals on the ground in Pakistan, we would not have the “evidence,” the “treasure trove” of documents and computers, that those young men took from that compound where Bin Laden has apparently been holed up for five or six years.

Obama did indeed make the gutsy call. It’s difficult to compare all this with any other single event that has the same kind of drama, the world-wide impact and the transformative possibility.

Still, while the events around Bin Laden’s death have already assumed historical proportions, such transformative moments can, and do, change over time. I remember thinking as George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and stood under that “Mission Accomplished” banner in 2003 that his re-election had just be secured.

Now, as history has moved on, the mission accomplished moment looks a whole lot different. I can’t help but wonder if the soon-to-be iconic photo of the President and his advisors huddled in the Situation Room watching the Bin Laden mission unfold will be seen ten years from now as we see it today.

It was a gutsy call and lots of history will follow it.