President of the United States
Facing huge risks and holding inconclusive intel, the president makes a gutsy call to take out bin Laden.
Jimmy Carter doesn’t put it this way in public, but his view of the 1980 election must come down to this: one more chopper, one more term. The Desert One mission to liberate the American hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was a catastrophic military failure that probably sealed his political fate. As chronicled by Mark Bowden in these pages five years ago, the chain of disasters that brought down the mission began when the initial force of eight helicopters was reduced, by weather and mechanical failure, to five—or one fewer than the minimum needed for the raid.
If the rescue had succeeded, Carter would still have faced other problems—a prime interest rate above 20 percent, a bleak economic mood resembling today’s, a challenger from his own party named Kennedy and one from the other party named Reagan. But he would have had a big success to point to, and in a race that until the very end was closer than it seems in retrospect, on Election Day the hostages would have been celebrating months of freedom rather than marking their first anniversary in enemy hands.
In giving the “Go” order for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Barack Obama faced risks like Carter’s, and worse. If the raid had failed, he would have been the president with no military background—Carter, at least, was an Annapolis grad and had served at sea—who squandered the lives of brave Navy SEALs. To the left, he would have been what they didn’t like about the previous administration: warmongering and incompetent. To the right, he would have been the professor-president who joked, tuxedo-clad, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner even as real Americans were about to die at his whim. To Pakistan and much of the world, he would have been a provocateur and an ugly American, since Pakistan would have stoutly denied that there was the slightest reason to suspect bin Laden’s presence on its soil. And all these risks, for himself and the nation, to try to solve a problem that his predecessors had been unable to solve themselves. The captives in Iran had been taken on Jimmy Carter’s own watch and were his responsibility; but few could have criticized Obama for failing to find the man the previous administration could not track down.
Obama the great ponderer, the seeker of middle ground, said “Go,” despite the risks. The evidence as to who was in the compound was incomplete; the plan was thought through but not guaranteed to work. At some point we’ll know, from other people in the room and perhaps from Obama himself, about the factors he consciously weighed or seemed unconsciously to be swayed by. But from the nation’s point of view, it was brave to say “Go.”
The consequences of failure would have been bad for everyone, but especially for Obama; the benefits have proved to be transitory for him but can be significant and lasting for the country as a whole. On May 2, 2011, the United States reached the only “closure” it will ever have from the attacks 10 years earlier. We can never extinguish the threat of terrorism, but the death of bin Laden is a chance to move to a more sustainable long-term approach to such threats. Obama had more to lose from this decision, and the country had more to gain.