Killing Bin Laden: How Wrong That Operation Could Have Gone
New York magazine beat me to writing this (and did it better than I could have). It's been playing on my mind since I heard the news--how unbelievably wrong this all could have gone:
That an unequivocal military success could still provoke bitter condemnation of the president made us wonder what would have happened if Operation Geronimo hadn’t gone off successfully — a possibility that was very real to the mission’s planners, who the Times reports made frequent mention of Black Hawk Down and Jimmy Carter’s botched hostage rescue in Iran. Here then, an alternate history of the past 36 hours. ...
The fighting has stopped, but a bloody scene has emerged. Casualties are heavy, including Americans, Pakistani armed forces, and others who may be civilians. An American helicopter has been destroyed, and there are reports of a Pakistani jet crashing in the center of the city. Several buildings in the vicinity are ablaze. Residents are reporting that the incident began with two helicopters carrying American troops descending on Abbottabad. The troops stormed a large house here and a prolonged firefight broke out. Pakistani jets, scrambling to the scene, destroyed one of the U.S. helicopters. “It was a free-for-all,” said a local man. “You couldn’t tell who was fighting whom.” ...
12:15 a.m. The Times is reporting that the debate on whether to bomb bin Laden’s alleged hideout using drones or to send in troops raged for a week prior to the president giving his go-ahead to send in Navy SEALS. “It was about avoiding civilian casualties in light of the Raymond Davis issue and minimizing damage to our relationship with Pakistan,” said a source close to the discussion, characterizing the president’s decision. “In the end, we did neither.”
Indeed, it could have been far worse than New York is imagining: Reading the Indian press, I realized there was another huge risk in this operation--that the Pakistanis would mistake our intrusion of their airspace for an Indian attack. Nuclear states, remember.
New York is absolutely right to suggest that the President would have been excoriated had this gone wrong. He made the call, he took the chance. It is proper to give him full credit for making it. I'm sure we'll hear everyone around him taking credit for it in coming days, and we're already hearing hints that he was hesitant and had to be persuaded. Nonetheless, he was the only one who had the authority to make the decision, in the end, and he made it.
In no way does this mean anyone needs to love his presidency, declare Obamacare a terrific idea, admire his budget proposals, enjoy his vapid speeches, or vote for him in the next election. But there is something grotesque in refusing to give him credit for this. It's intellectually dishonest to refuse to admit that no, this does not at all fit the story many of us had constructed about him--that he is flaccid, vacillating, pathologically incapable of making difficult decisions, unconcerned with foreign policy, and unable to wipe his own nose without the approval of the UN.
A thought occurs to me. This went right, and the results clearly justify the decision a thousand times over. But man, what a crazy, reckless thing to do! I'm reminded of something that was said of Margaret Thatcher--that if she'd had any military experience, she'd never have authorized the Falklands campaign. I'm wondering who was saying to the President, "This is nuts, don't do it?" And I'm wondering if we got lucky in having a president who just didn't have enough experience to grasp how wrong this could go and think better of it.
History is a strange thing. Always surprising. People, too.