Osama bin Laden Is Dead–What’s Next for President Obama?
On the Sunday evening of May 1, 2011, the American people breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama stood behind the White House lectern and reported the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader responsible for the September 11, 2011 acts of terror that took some three-thousand American lives. Thus ended a seven-year pursuit, fraught with frustrations and disappointments, and accountable for thousands of deaths in combat and billions of dollars. A testimony to the staying power of the American mighty military, the audacious May 1 operation inside Pakistan was also an outright success for its Commander-in-Chief, who approved the operation, decided on its timing, and watched it unfold to completion. One would have thought that such a seminal event would ever be present on the political scene, and occupy the forefront of American consciousness. How comes it that, only a couple of months after it occurred, this milestone in the war against terrorism is eclipsed from the national conversation, relegated to near-oblivion? How comes it that the President does not pivot from it to achieve badly needed successes on the domestic front?
The elimination of Osama bin Laden is the high point of Obama’s presidency. Indisputably, the success was his. While there could be a philosophical or a policy debate on whether the Stimulus, for instance, worked (which did, in my view), there is no dispute that the Special Forces acted on his watch and got rid of America’s public enemy number one. That is, unless one is a hard-core Republican… In that case, the Democratic President only receives partial credit. This clear victory of Obama’s was discounted by Republican pundits who claimed co-paternity for President George W. Bush. This brings to mind Count Ciano’s famous thought, which President John F. Kennedy made proverbial, “Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.” At no
time in recent memory has this proverbial thought been more fitting than on this occasion. Whoever entertained the hopes that this milestone would rub off on the President’s domestic agenda
clearly underestimated the strength, efficiency, and versatility of the Republican spin doctors. In effect, in no time the latter gathered their forces and launched a campaign to redeem the
so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” performed on Guantanamo detainees during Bush’s tenure, which they put at the source of the intelligence that led to the Al Qaeda leader. Inasmuch as the Republican strategy rests on Obama’s failure as Chief Executive of the nation, it is understandable that every inch of the political scene shall be contested, and every possible success denied him.
The homage to the former Republican President was not the monopoly of Grand Ole Party (GOP) faithfuls, conservative devotees, or right-ring lunatics. Media personalities joined in
the chorus as well. Most unexpected was the voice of the venerable David Gergen, reputed for even-handed analyses and judicious opinions on CNN. In an interview on this news outlet right before Obama announced bin Laden’s killing, Gergen punctuated his final remarks with an emphatic “Thank you, President Obama, and Thank you, President Bush.” I do not take issue with his accolade of the former president per se. But that he uttered his gratitude to both Obama and Bush in the same breath was unfair and, in my view, aberrant. I am certainly not about to attribute to the distinguished commentator any of the negative sentiment that has filtered through the political discourse, aiming at delegitimizing Obama and undermining his presidency. However,
his statement gave me pause. Likewise, CNN’s John King in the moments preceding the president’s address gave an oblique recognition to George Bush’s policies when he said, “Bin Laden is dead, and Barack Obama happens to be the president”– a suggestion that Obama was just an opportunist who was at the right place at the right time. Coming from a cable outlet that touts
its non-alignment, such assertions tell the extent to which the malaise vis-à-vis our 44th President has metastasized. By contrast, they testify to the immense political capital George W. Bush still enjoys. The question, then, begs to be asked: What more does Obama have to do to be relevant in the eyes of many or even have the benefit of the doubt? In fairness to George W. Bush, he deserves credit for distancing himself from the brouhaha, leaving the dirty work to the unrepentant Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, & Co. The former President is to be commended for staying out of the limelight. He could have accepted Obama’s invitation to accompany him to New York’s Ground Zero and lay a wreath in memory of those who perished on September 11, 2001. Understandably, he chose not to. Unlike the Republican revisionist clique, hard at work rewriting history, Bush understood. He understood that bin Laden hit the Homeland on his watch, and that he failed to deliver on his solemn promise to the American people to bring the Al Qaeda leader to justice—summary justice, Wild West style (“Dead or Alive”.) While his lieutenants counted on the American people’s amnesia regarding their Administration’s failures, he understood that when the six-foot-four bin Laden was within striking distance, sighted and virtually trapped in Torah Bora in the waning days of the 2001 Afghanistan campaign, they let him slip away—a gaffe that will go down in history as a stunning case of tactical malpractice, as an act of stupidity of the highest order. Bush took it to heart. But his impenitent factotums did not. At a time when one would expect them to put their tails between their legs and walk away unnoticed, there they are, back with a vengeance, reinventing themselves as the ultimate stewards of America’s security and engaging in crass competition for credit for the success of the operation. They wish the American people would forget that they shifted their focus, assets, and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, which they considered then, by some delusion, the focal point of the “war on terror”. Compounding this fiasco, they entered into a dubious cooperation with Pakistan, under which the Taliban-Al Qaeda axis grew unchecked along the Afghan-Pakistani border, while they poured
billions into Pakistan’s coffers and let General Pervez Musharraf and his duplicitous security forces (ISI) call the shots under the guise of national sovereignty. Bush understood–but his henchmen would let believe otherwise–that he allowed bin Laden’s myth to grow and fuel fanatical activism within fringe Islamic groups, to the detriment of America’s national security.
Dismissive of the cost the misguided tactics imposed on the Nation in terms of lives, treasure, and international prestige, the Republican spin machine goes on to herald George Bush as the real architect of bin Laden’s demise. They do concede one thing to Obama: he was “gutsy”, they said. So absurd! Such an epithet does not do justice to the cerebral President and downplays the thought process that has guided most of his decisions since his ascension to the presidency. In fact, it is an insult to his intellectual capacity. His strong confidence in his deductive ability should not be equated to “guts”, which gives primacy to impulses over rational inference, and refers to an instinctual drive fueled by adventurism and bravado, irrespective of risks involved. Obama’s
decision-making model is all about rational inference. As exemplified by the raid, his model suggests a mix of patiently gathered facts (intelligence), unbiased analysis of the facts (intelligence), insightful reading of human behavior, mitigation of risk, and utilization of optimal resources. In his interview with “60 Minutes” in the days following the operation, he said there was no absolute certainty—a “55/45 chance”–that bin Laden was in the compound. That he decided to go in, over the objection of some trusted advisers, was not a reckless or “gutsy” act. It was a lucid decision, driven by rational inference, supported by painstaking preparation and shored up by a rare sense of timing. Yes, timing—Obama’s other great asset. Whoever has followed his trajectory can testify to his sense of opportunity and timing, his ability to discern the equilibrium point where facts, opportunity, and optimal resources intersect to yield the best possible course of action. As details emerged about the conception and execution of the raid, Obama’s decision-making process came to light. No doubt this operation will be studied in academia as a case study in executive decision-making. Obama’s process is the polar opposite of that of a George Bush, who embarked the Nation on a bloody war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and an ill-conceived plan. The jury is still out on whether he actually tampered with the intelligence or bent it to suit his flawed premise that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling or developing weapons of mass destruction.
President Obama earned the right to celebrate this milestone. He could have touted it with fanfare, celebratory fist-pumping or sarcastic scorn. He chose none of that. His “report to the American people” was humble. With a touch of pride. Yet, humble. And magnanimous. Magnanimous even vis-à-vis his worst enemy. It was telling that bin Laden’s burial was done in accordance with the Islamic Faith and Arabic traditions. By so doing, he appealed to our noblest sentiments, transcended the pettiness of parochialism to reach in for the greater humanism within us. Realizing that much of the anti-Americanism that has spread across the Middle-East was driven by symbols and perceptions inspired by our actions, he figured that symbolism of a different sort could mitigate the damage. For, intangible as they may be, the costs incurred due to those symbols are nonetheless high. There are no metrics to gauge, for instance, how much our image has suffered from the desecration of the Koran, from our troops’ allowing the vandalization of the Bagdad Ancient library, from the dehumanization of the Abhu Graib prisoners in Iraq, from the waterboarding of the Guantanamo detainees, from the practice of rendition by the CIA. Yet, as immeasurable as they may be in tangible terms, these acts have a potent symbolic value and weigh heavily on the perceptions towards the US. By showing sensitivity in this instance, Obama sought in a small way to offset the impact of these intangibles, and set a new standard for future occupants of the Oval Office. For, in world relations that are becoming increasingly complex, the President of the United States of America ought to be culturally literate. Obama is perhaps the first President to integrate these intangibles in the national security model—a model that counterbalances the “carrot” approach in American foreign policy, which seeks allegiance through financial incentives. Let’s note that this approach has been emphatically rebuked in the mountains and valleys of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, where a $25 M bounty on bin Laden’s head failed to turn him in. There, the piety of the locals, coupled with strong tribal affiliations and a different value system, has proven to be impervious to the appeal of the dollar.
Additionally, as Obama’s acts are often marked by a dualistic aspect, the decision to dispose of bin Laden’s remains at sea was to ensure that the myth does not endure, to deny sympathizers, followers, and potential recruits of a worship and pilgrimage place. Again, this is a testimony to the thoughtfulness and minutia that went along with the planning of the raid. Obviously, that painstaking preparation was lost on the cynics of the Cheney & Co. school of thought, who reduced the elimination of bin Laden to some low-grade information obtained five or six years ago, precisely at the time when Bush himself dropped the pursuit of bin Laden from his high priority list; at the time when he confessed not knowing about the latter’s whereabouts. The far-fetched scenario links the killing of the Al Qaeda leader to his courier, whose name was revealed under harsh interrogation. Though such information had since been declared unsubstantiated, they continue to herald it as the crux of the intelligence. The question is: if that intelligence was as actionable as they claim it to be, why did it take five years to use it against bin Laden? The strategic significance of Al Qaeda’s decapitation is preempted by the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques”—a euphemism for torture. Their technique of choice is waterboarding, which
subjects a prisoner to episodes of simulated drowning in order to obtain information from them. The religious-right ultra-conservative former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave an unequivocal endorsement of torture in a May 17, 2011 radio interview: “I mean, you break somebody, and after they are broken, they become cooperative. And that’s when we got this information.”! Such insanity is revealing of the moral decrepitude some would-be leaders stooped to, and of their hypocrisy vis-à-vis the religious standards they so often boast. At the height of their sadistic craze, the waterboarders subjected one guy, Khalid Sheik Muhammad—the architect of September 11, to 183 sessions of waterboarding. Ironically or rather predictably, the waterboarders still could not “break” that guy.
Yet the Party of waterboarding drives the conversation and might even be scoring points. Yet again, always deft at turning defeat into opportunity, the Republicans are putting the Democrats on the defensive. They make no apology for breaching our values, for breaking our laws, for going against international norms and conventions, even against the tenets of their Christian faith. Despite reports challenging the effectiveness of waterboarding, they steadfastly champion this technique as the ideal means for extracting information from prisoners. Mr. President, you
cannot afford to let the waterboarders drive the conversation, set the agenda, and define you and your politics. You earned your stripes. You shattered bin Laden’s mythical aura. You are the one who brought down the symbol towards whose demise we have sacrificed thousands of young lives, the man who haunted the American psyche for years–the man who achieved what Hitler and his U-boats, the Japanese and their kamikazes, the Soviets and their nuclear arsenal could not have done: forcing us to retreat inward and give in to a wave of inner insecurities. After 9/11, for the first time in their history, Americans felt vulnerable within their own borders despite the guaranteed protection of the most powerful military the world has ever known. That was bin Laden’s ultimate victory: he made us live our insecurities daily to the point where any innocuous malfunction makes us think first of an act of terrorism. As it were, he awakened in us a terroristic reflex, which went on unabated as long as he was alive. You provided the catharsis America’s subconscious needed to overcome these insecurities. Mr. President, you eviscerated Al Qaeda. Of course, this organization will not cease being lethal overnight, but it will never be the same… thanks to you.
Mr. President, conventional wisdom holds that Democrats are weak on National Security. You have crippled this narrative, and burnished your credentials and those of the Democratic Party. You have defeated the Republicans, the Party of Waterboarders on their territory, in their sacred fiefdom—National Security. You have accomplished what the most hawkish elements of the Bush Administration could only dream of. If anything, the event of early May 2011 should put this narrative to rest for good. Certainly, the demagoguery on the other side will persist regarding the so-called softness of the Democrats on foreign policy and military matters. Your opponents will try to blur the lines, co-opt the true meaning of the demise Osama bin Laden, or even
insinuate that it is an isolated act of a government lucky to be in office and beneficiary of the hard labor of its predecessor. You must not let them succeed in this desperate attempt. This success is
yours! But you cannot take for granted that it will speak for itself, or that the American people will remember it and give you credit for it. One lesson you may learn from George W. Bush was that he kept 9/11 at the forefront of the American consciousness. It is not the time to be modest. You may be worried that the big “A” epithet—Arrogant—be affixed to you, if you boast this
achievement. Frankly, this should be the least of your worries!
Lastly, Mr. President, there is political leverage to be gained from the May 1, 2011 act that you authored and the execution of which you successfully directed. You cannot stand by and watch its impact fizzle, or let it be relegated to the annals of history. You must make this success the cornerstone of your re-election strategy; use it to contextualize your political message. As domestic politics is heating up over issues of seminal importance to the nation and posturing by your opponents is testing your leadership, you must stand up and stand out as the one credentialed to successfully tackle such issues. After all, you are the man who took bin Laden out. As elusive and frustrating this pursuit was, you nonetheless never lost your focus. You were committed to the cause of relieving the American people from the nemesis Osama bin Laden represented. You were determined not to let one man frustrate the might of our powerful military and hold the American psyche hostage. In the end your commitment paid off. You must not let this achievement go by the wayside, or be co-opted by opportunists from the other side. You must adroitly pivot from it to achieve other successes on the domestic front. The American people are now faced with a nemesis of a different kind that has bred new insecurities in cities and communities across the nation. These new insecurities are shaking the American people’s belief in their proverbial capacity to overcome adversity. This nemesis is as powerful, as elusive, as damaging, as frustrating as the threat of terrorism posed by bin Laden. Seven years after 9/11, America was struck in the fall of 2008 by an event of cataclysmic proportions, which brought it to the brink of annihilation as the world economic superpower. The severity of that shock, caused by a decade of economic neglect and flagrant lack of oversight coupled with reckless fiscal policies, was such that the structures of our economic edifice were badly damaged. The damages reverberated throughout all the sectors down to poor and middle-class kitchen tables across the nation. This new nemesis—the state of the economy—is your new challenge. You must draw for the American people a parallel between the insecurities of post-9/11 America and the uncertainties of post-2008 Financial Collapse America. Do it in terms they relate to. You have the power, the credentials to triumph over this new nemesis. It will take patience, focus, decisions that rely on rational inference—the type of decision-making that led to the May 1, 2011 successful operation. You need to convey it to the American people with passion. The same passion you displayed during your presidential campaign.
After all, you are the man. The one who took bin Laden out. No small feat, indeed! Washington should be reminded of it. And America should be grateful for it.