Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Barack Obama

Pete Souza/The White House/Associated Press

President of the United States
Washington, D.C.

Facing huge risks and holding inconclusive intel, the president makes a gutsy call to take out bin Laden.

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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.

Brave Thinkers 2011In 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.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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