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Tilting at Windmills

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May 3, 2011

WHAT MADE IT A 'GUTSY CALL'.... John Brennan, assistant to the President for Counter-Terrorism, spoke to reporters yesterday about the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He noted that there had been some disagreement among advisors about whether to greenlight the operation before the president gave the order, a move Brennan called "one of the ... gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."

I got an email last night suggesting this was needless hyperbole. The reader said, "Anyone would have given the order to kill bin Laden. What's so 'gusty'?"

This must-read, tick-tock piece in the New York Times helps flesh out the answer.

As more than a dozen White House, intelligence and Pentagon officials described the operation on Monday, the past few weeks were a nerve-racking amalgamation of what-ifs and negative scenarios. "There wasn't a meeting when someone didn't mention 'Black Hawk Down,' " a senior administration official said, referring to the disastrous 1993 battle in Somalia in which two American helicopters were shot down and some of their crew killed in action. The failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 also loomed large.

Administration officials split over whether to launch the operation, whether to wait and continue monitoring until they were more sure that Bin Laden was really there, or whether to go for a less risky bombing assault. In the end, President Obama opted against a bombing that could do so much damage it might be uncertain whether Bin Laden was really hit and chose to send in commandos. A "fight your way out" option was built into the plan, with two helicopters following the two main assault copters as backup in case of trouble.

About a week ago, the president asked his national security team for options, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates was skeptical about a helicopter assault, preferring an aerial bombardment using smart bombs. The result, however, would have been a crater -- with no physical remains.

On Thursday, Obama led another meeting with his top national security officials.

Mr. Panetta told the group that the C.I.A. had "red-teamed" the case -- shared their intelligence with other analysts who weren't involved to see if they agreed that Bin Laden was probably in Abbottabad. They did. It was time to decide.

Around the table, the group went over and over the negative scenarios. There were long periods of silence, one aide said. And then, finally, Mr. Obama spoke: "I'm not going to tell you what my decision is now -- I'm going to go back and think about it some more." But he added, "I'm going to make a decision soon."

Sixteen hours later, he had made up his mind. Early the next morning, four top aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room. Before they could brief the president, he cut them off. "It's a go," he said.

Obama, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "rolled the dice."

Is it reasonable to call this "one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory"? It seems fair to me.

To reiterate a point from yesterday, there's a difference between talking tough and being tough, just as there's a difference between chest-thumping rhetoric and getting the job done.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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It seems to me that an element in the decision was a sense that there was less to bin Ladin than met the eye. The enemy's power was, after all, in our perception of him.

At least... [deep breath] ... I hope that this is what happened, and it's not just dumb luck.

Posted by: MattF on May 3, 2011 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

Sure, it took guts.

Just look at the reaction from the right to Obama's success.

Could you imagine what they'd say if he had failed?

They'd have had impeachment hearing going by late Monday morning.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 3, 2011 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

It was a "gutsy" call to invade Iraq and we all know how that went. Remember GWB trusting his gut...

I don't want a president with guts, I prefer intelligence and consideration of risks.

Posted by: CJ_n_PA on May 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

I think it's safe to say that had the mission failed, had the SEALs been killed or captured, Obama's presidency would have essentially ended at that point.

That's of less importance than knowing you sent our fighting men to their deaths, but obviously it's the sort of thing you have to think about when making a decision of this magnitude.

And of course there's the chance that we could have had the wrong house. Unlikely, but these things do happen. Since the Pakistanis weren't informed of this, the phrase "international incident" doesn't even begin to describe the situation.

Posted by: Art Hackett on May 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

IMO, anyone questioning the risk and 'gutsiness' of the decision is either ignorant of the facts or just being partisan.

Posted by: Holmes on May 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

It was discussed during the election of '08 that Barack is a poker player whereas John McCain preferred craps (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/2252578/...) What you describe is the calculating habit of a poker player not someone 'rolling the dice'. At the conservative-but-sane website 'outside the beltway' they have a comment on the bin Laden raid: "Remind me never to play poker with Obama".

We know now how lucky we were in the outcome of the '08 election. No one should 'roll the dice' with the lives of a score of Seals and attending pilots and such on the table.

Posted by: JohnMcC on May 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

The lessons from the Somalia Black Hawk Down debacle and maybe above all Carters botched rescue attempt of the iranian embassy hostages should really drive the point home.

What was the worst case scenario here?

- Bin Laden was never there there.
- Civilian casualties. Helicopters lost, the team trying to fight their way out before eventually being captured by Pakistani military.
- American soldiers dead or captured on Pakistani soil, officially a friendly ally. With potentially nothing to show for it.
- A public relations fiasko; Angry hordes of pakistanis protesting the US violating Pakistani territory.
- The US being forced to scale back or cease all operations on Pakistani territory including drone strikes because of blowback over the botched operation.

Given the steady drumbeat of republican attacks on democratic being weak and Obama being weak and clueless on foreign policy, this could easily - if it hade gone Pete Tong - killed Obama's chances of reelection, and reinforced narratives about democrats that have helped lose elections ever since that operation under Jimmy Carter.

Only a fool would expect Obama and his team not to have been well aware of that.

Posted by: Danny on May 3, 2011 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

This event really does, once and for all, separate Obama from the wuss image that his political enemies have made for him.

I bet Dick "Obama making the country less safe" Cheney threw up in his mouth a little bit when he heard the news.

Posted by: jcricket on May 3, 2011 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

This how ADULTS make decisions. Discuss and examine the facts, the several courses of action, and the possible outcomes. And then the the Supreme Allied Commander- sorry; I'm channeling Ike here- issues the order.

Perhaps it is a bit of hyperbole, but not since General Eisenhower issued the "go ahead" to invade Normandy has one man had to give such a monumental order.
Impeachment, indeed!

Posted by: DAY on May 3, 2011 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

We still know that Obama and the democrat party is soft on defense!

That is our talking point, we stand by it, and our corporately owned media will continue to provide an echo chamber and message amplifier for this and our other messages.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on May 3, 2011 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

The detail problem was bin Laden himself, whether he was there, and how much firepower he could bring to bear on the kill team.

But the metaproblem likely didn't exist. Who among us isn't at least thinking that people far up the food chain in both the Pakistani and Saudi governments didn't know we were going to go get him? Isn't at least thinking that those same people might well have sold bin Laden out?

This is the Great Game people. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is what it seems here.

Posted by: LL on May 3, 2011 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

Of course in our if Dems do this Repubs say that world, where nothing is done right according to the GOP, there would be flat out no perfect answer. Had Obama done nothing, and word got out, well Dems are spineless pussbags everyone knows that vote for Republicans they are brave and strong! Had Obama opted for an air strike, yeah, well, how do we know he didn't blow up a private school filled with kids? How do we know Osama was even there, there's no evidence, vote for Republicans we always get our man (except for all those other time where we failed dismally but if you bring that up you're a traitor who hates the troops)! Had we a Black Hawk Down moment, well can you just IMAGINE how much better this would have gone under the experienced leadership of a McCain-Palin team, Cokie? Obama has the deaths of all those Navy SEALs on his hands, but that's probably what he wanted, a weaker military, right Karl? And here we have a situation where Obama made a tough call, and with the exception of the chopper incident (for which they prepared contingency plans) things seemed to have gone as planned, and Republicans are still bicthing about it, could it have been done sooner, could it have been handled better, could the President smile when he says he arranged for a man to be murdered, are those DNA tests reliable and can we be sure we got the REAL Osama? Couldn't we have seen the body for just a little while so Sean & Rush could have peed on it BEFORE burying it at sea, Obama's rash decision cost us an important country-healing victory lap! Vote Republican in 2012, we don't know how to win a battle, but if we win one by accident, we sure know how to celebrate! And where's Bush's props?

All of this makes Obama's dig at Trump at the Correspondents' Dinner - the one about those Celebrity Apprentice firing decisions being the sort of thing that would keep Obama up at night - all the more cutting and powerful. Because not only did he have to make such a "gutsy" decision, he did it with the full knowledge that, even if everything went right, he'd get no credit - indeed, there's a mad rush to celebrate the previous Administration (you know, the one that f***ed everything up so royally and stopped looking for bin Laden in the first place) - but if anything went wrong, he'd get all of the blame. Indeed, things went well, and he's still getting flak. ANY call would have been gutsy, a roll of the dice. While I disagree with this President on so many issues (though oddly none of the issues that Teabaggers disagree with, being that many of them only exist in their malfunctioning headbones), I feel he deserves a lot of respect and admiration for making this call, not to mention the team that carried out the operation as well as it did, not only eliminating their target but leaving with apparently a treasure trove of terrorist info.

Posted by: slappy magoo on May 3, 2011 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

And you can bet that if it had gone horribly wrong that Obama would have taken full responsibility for it, unlike a certain previous pretzeldent.

Posted by: Roger the Cabin Boy on May 3, 2011 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

I was thinking of Carter's failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. Had it succeeded, he might well have earned a second term. Its failure marked his administration as a failure.

A year in advance of the next Presidential election, with the GOP continually attacking him as soft on defense and weak on foreign policy (when in fact his statecraft in concert with Hillary has been truly outstanding and in the face of some huge challenges like the reform movement in the Middle East) taking the approach he did was a HUGE gamble.

BTW...a very interesting perspective on why bin Laden got found here: http://atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/ME03Df02.html via Atrios

Posted by: dweb on May 3, 2011 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

If Bush was facing a tough midterms, in a bad economy, and got that type of intel in August of last year, he pushes to have the mission conducted before the November elections. Or Rove pushes to have it done, and Bush acquiesces.

Posted by: Holmes on May 3, 2011 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

Given the unfairness of the GOP celebration of this victory, one can only guess at the depths of their vitriol if the operation had gone wrong, as with Carter's failed rescue attempt in Iran in 1979. They would have hung it around Obama's neck and never stopped talking about it.

The risks were huge, and people with full knowledge were advising against it. Osama might not have been there at all. Helicopters could have been shot down, strung up by wires, crashed. (Even on this successful mission, they lost one out of four helicopters.) SEALs could have died: they attacked a fortified compound that had been expecting an attack for years. Women and children could have been slaughtered: there were two dozen there.

The GOP and their propaganda outlets are fucking pretending that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and that he's not a Christian. You better believe they would have been viciously unfair if this had not been the raving success that it was.

Posted by: Rathskeller on May 3, 2011 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

But..But...But...HE DIDN"T SWAGGER!! How can it be called gutsy if the president doesn't swagger?

At least he could put something down his pants to make his dick look bigger.

Posted by: bignose on May 3, 2011 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

Well, it was a million dollar mansion. You don't just destroy that kind of thing.

just kidding.

Let's be honest. If this had gone badly:

If it had been a republican president then it would have been tragedy.
If it had been a democrat who made the call it would have been an opportunity for republicans to make the Democratic president look bad.

Politically, it was very gutsy, like others have mentioned.

This--whether or not it seems like it--was a 3 AM call that was so popularized during the primaries. He made the call though. That makes him look even stronger...in theory.

Add this to the pirate strike/ hostage rescue back in '09 and maybe it negates something else.

Posted by: gus on May 3, 2011 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

As well as can be imagined, President Obama will never get credit for anything related to this operation in the minds of some individuals.
I can just imagine the intro to this story in the new Texas history books:

"As Barack Hussein Obama summoned his inner circle of hacks to watch a video of his golf swing (Hillary clearly aghast), George W. Bush secretly gave orders to his personally trained Navy Seal team to take out Osama bin Laden. Dick Cheney was on the scene torturing the dead body hoping to extract vital information on the whereabouts of Obama's Kenyan birth certificate."

Yes, coming to a history book near you soon!

Posted by: whichwitch on May 3, 2011 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

I'd bet big money that the person who sent that e-mail also thinks people like Weiner are "gutsy" when he screams at Republicans in the House. Its not like there are repercussions for telling them off, it's jut "gutsy".

Posted by: Alli on May 3, 2011 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

@slappy magoo - enjoyed reading your post. Excellent.

Posted by: June on May 3, 2011 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

if he had failed, all you would have heard is..


the sequel

Posted by: rikyrah on May 3, 2011 at 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

I was thinking of Carter's failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. Had it succeeded, he might well have earned a second term. Its failure marked his administration as a failure.

I've always been fascinated at how many of the people involved in the planning and execution of that failed rescue attempt ended up working in the Reagan administration.

Posted by: josef on May 3, 2011 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

If Paul Ryan was "courageous" for coming up with the Repug budget, there isn't a word in the English language that can describe Obama's decision.

Posted by: Just Guessing on May 3, 2011 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

if he had failed, all you would have heard is..
the sequel

The weird thing is that, for all of GWB's failures in office, you never hear that said about him.

Of course, 'Worst.President.Ever.' is somewhat more telling than a comparison with Carter.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on May 3, 2011 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK
Perhaps it is a bit of hyperbole, but not since General Eisenhower issued the "go ahead" to invade Normandy has one man had to give such a monumental order.

Okay, I agree with Steve and with everyone here that this was a major gut-check moment, a very BFD, and a decision that could have cost dozens of lives and destroyed him politically. It took a degree of moral courage we haven't seen from our leaders for a long time. I don't want to take anything away from him on this.

But, in terms of candidates for most monumental orders since D-Day, I really think there may have been a few decisions made during the Cuban Missile Crisis that come out ahead on that scale. "If I do the wrong thing, hundreds of millions will die and entire nations will be incinerated into radioactive ashes" is kind of on a different plane, even in comparison to giving the "Go" to D-Day, really.

For that matter, even though it makes me throw up in my mouth a little to say it, Nixon's decision to take us to DEFCON 3 and send a note to Brezhnev when it looked like Israel was about to nuke the Arabs rather than lose in '73 was a pretty momentous decision.

Posted by: Another Steve on May 3, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

It should also be pointed out that if the US had bombed the place and created a hole in the ground, we wouldn't have been able to gather the documents and computers mentioned in the previous post.

Posted by: batgirl on May 3, 2011 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

President Obama led a team that succeeded in finding and killing OBL because he was looking for him. The President listened to the people he put in charge of intelligence gathering and trusted those trained to execute the plan. GWB's gut told him Bin Laden was no longer worth wasting time thinking about and in 2006, stopped looking for him altogether. Judging by the instant reaction on Sunday night, who do you think did the right thing? Bin Laden's terrorist effectiveness may have dwindled in last decade, however for the sake of our national consciousness he needed to be dealt with.

Posted by: bcinaz on May 3, 2011 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

Wow, so Rush was (unintentionally or sarcastically) right (for a change) after all! It was Obama's own idea to send in the commando team (likely from nearby to me, Virginia Beach), overruling his more cautious Cabinet. I love it! (as some troll here used to say.)

BTW, anyone have screen shot of the original Politico piece making Rush seem sincere, before they changed it (w/o notice, I hear) to acknowledge sarcasm? Is there a central "page change" watch against such sites (no, not archive.org, I mean a directed effort.) I know MMFA does it sometimes, anyone else? tx

Posted by: Neil B on May 3, 2011 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

I'm a staunch supporter of President Obama and my assessment of him has markedly improved as a result of reading the NYT story. Steadiness, wisdom and discipline as well as guts: this guy is the complete package.

Posted by: JD on May 3, 2011 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, it was clearly a gutsy call given the available intel.

This is somewhat OT, but with every story I read about this, I can't help but think, "and it only took 10 years, two wars, 1500+ American lives, 100,000 X ? of Iraqi and Afghan lives and 1.4 trillion dollars to get this guy."

If we had spent 1/10th of that amount ($140 billion) and put it into human intel operations, I'm pretty certain we could have achieved the same result in a shorter amount of time without the massive collateral damage.

Then I read Dick Cheney trying to spin the accomplishment to justify his crimes against humanity. Who's the bigger criminal?

Posted by: bdop4 on May 3, 2011 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

In a theoretical sense "anyone could have". In a very practical sense - only one person did.

Posted by: gelfling545 on May 3, 2011 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

This operation was planned and executed impeccably. Can that be spun away as dumb luck? This operation was kept secret from the Pakistani ISI, not an easy thing to do, given the location of OBL, and how close he was to major Pakistani army and intelligence headquarters (less than a mile away from Pakistan's 'West Point'). This was pretty picture perfect, and there is no way the Republicans can thieve this, as they have so much else, for their side.

The people know now that they have a competent and very serious president.

Posted by: jjm on May 3, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: whichwitch on May 3, 2011 at 10:28 AM
"As Barack Hussein Obama summoned his inner circle of hacks to watch a video of his golf swing (Hillary clearly aghast), George W. Bush secretly gave orders to his personally trained Navy Seal team to take out Osama bin Laden. Dick Cheney was on the scene torturing the dead body hoping to extract vital information on the whereabouts of Obama's Kenyan birth certificate."

The first person that sends me an email with any kind of repub crap about this OBL mission is going to get a cut and paste of this. Please whichwitch, don't tell me I can't use it.

Posted by: Schtick on May 3, 2011 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

I second the poker analogy and agree that "rolling the dice" is a poor analogy.

During the 2008 election, I was much struck by the description of John McCain as a crap-shooter as opposed to Obama'a reputation as a good poker player.

There is an optimum strategy for playing craps and it never changes; playing that way reduces the percentages against you to a fraction of 1%. But it is deadly dull. The real excitement comes from playing the bets in the middle of the table, but that is where the dice are really stacked against you. For example, if you bet on 11 (on a single roll) the odds are 17-1 against you, but if you win you only get paid 15-1. That's a huge vig for the house and if you keep doing it, with a probability approaching certainty very quickly you will go bust. But it's exciting (maybe lass so if you have a wife's fortune to absorb losses).

In poker while you can always calculate the odds if you are quick and alert (which are different in each hand and depend on the size of the pot, also non-constant) there is also the need to sense the mindset of the other players, their tendencies, habits, and tells (physical quirks that give away what they are really doing e. g. bluffing or not). This requires patience, discipline, fortitude (you don't win every pot, even with good cards). As a pro once told me, poker is a game of character.

So on this one, Obama the poker player went all in. That is, he estimated the chances (much less mathematical than in a card game) weighed the gains and possible losses, and pushed his entire stack into the pot. Of course it took guts, since the outcome is never certain. But it was not the plunge of a McCain shooting the dice (cf. the choice of Sarah Palin) and damn the odds, but as much weighing as possible and then taking the plunge.

On the night of June 5, 1944, D. D, Eisenhower had to decide if a forecast slight break in the weather made it feasible to green-light the invasion of Normandy. (I was there overlooking the beaches last June on a day when the weather was such that an invasion would have foundered for sure, as the Omaha Beach thrust almost did.) Ike didn't make the invasion himself...that was planned and prepared for years, and executed by hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Yet he was the one man who had to shoulder the responsibility of saying "Go", prepared to take the onus if the weatherman was wrong or if any number of other things had slipped. So he deserves all the credit he has received.

Granted, Obama's decision would not (at least directly)ruined the lives of thousands and the hopes of millions, but the consequences to his own future were every bit as grave, and who knows what might have flowed from a failure for which he would have borne the blame. A few hanging chads (and Ralph Nader's folie de grandeur) gave us 8 years of incompetence, fecklessness, and corruption that would make a Chicago gang-boss blush (Halliburton and Blackwater, for example).

So let the crazed pygmies natter and rant all they want. At least one mensch did what was required, and the whining and nit-picking just add to his stature.

Posted by: jrosen on May 3, 2011 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK


Nicely said and true

Posted by: Danny on May 3, 2011 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

slappy magoo on May 3, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Great comment, particularly when you drew attention to his derision of Trump and the crucial decisions he has to make on Celebrity Apprentice.

Posted by: Squeaky McCrinkle on May 3, 2011 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK

Doug ... Doug ... nice backhanded attempt to claim that Bush and Cheney deserve the credit for this success (and that Obama is just a hypocrite or something).

But you FAIL. You FAIL.

Posted by: Bokonon on May 3, 2011 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

For what it's worth, the mods may want to check out the "Doug" at 5"46 PM. It may that dodo from Virginia again, because it certainly isn't ME!

[thanks - mods.]

Posted by: Doug on May 3, 2011 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK
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