Much has been written about the political courage of President Obama and about the risk he incurred when he ordered the Dick Cheney’s “assassination squad” to take out Osama bin Laden. That there were risks involved goes without saying.
We had good reason to suppose that, if we told the Pakistanis, someone in their intelligence apparatus would tip off Al Q’aeda, and so we found ourselves conducting a military operation within yards of the Pakistani West Point without the permission of the Pakistani government. Had the Pakistani military caught on, the whole things might have ended in tears.
To this one can add the fact that we were by no means certain that the mysterious individual holed up on the third floor of the compound in Abbottabad was bin Laden. Had it turned out to be a lesser mortal – especially if the gentleman living so secluded a life in that compound had turned out not to have been a leading figure in Al Q’aeda – Barack Obama would have had egg on his face.
But none of this means that we should be persuaded that our President is not, in fact, dangerously risk-averse. For one must consider the political consequences for his candidacy for re-election had he allowed bin Laden to get away – as he surely did himself.
What happened at Tora Bora was regrettable but excusable. We did not have that many men in place. The terrain was forbidding and offered any number of places in which to hide, and the forces loyal to Al Q’aeda knew the territory in a way that we did not.
Abbottabad was different. We had a pretty good idea that bin Laden was there. We had been watching the place for eight months or more, and President Obama was taking considerable heat for having been feckless in Libya and elsewhere. Given the circumstances, dithering and blundering would have been fatal to his political prospects, and he knew it. He may not be at all savvy in his conduct of foreign policy, but his political instincts are well honed.
Even then, however, President Obama dithered – as he had done with regard to the proposed “surge” in Afghanistan, as he had done when the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi took place in Libya. Months and months passed – and, at a certain point, well before we launched the assault, we had learned as much as could be learned given the obvious caution exercised by the mysterious gentleman holed up on the third floor of the compound.
If Barack Obama finally, reluctantly decided to pull the trigger, it was, as someone who calls himself Southernpundit noted in a comment on Kausfiles, almost surely because of Wikileaks. About a week before the decision, Wikileaks revealed that we had learned the nom de guerre of the courier who owned the house in Abbottabad. We can be confident that the CIA took notice and that President Obama was informed. It was only a matter of time before Al Q’aeda woke up to the danger and saw to bin Laden’s withdrawal.
We in the United States owe a lot to the fact that we possess institutions – free and frequent elections, above all else – by which we can hold politicians responsible for their blunders. If they tend to conduct themselves in a responsible manner, it is because the prospect of defeat and humiliation concentrates their minds wonderfully.