By the morning of April 29, 2011 – a year ago today – President Obama had made up his mind.
“It’s a go,” Obama told his national security advisors, who had to stay mum, sweating out the next couple days before SEAL Team 6 launched their high-risk mission.
Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta (now the Secretary of Defense) remembers those “fingernail-biting moments” May 1, 2011, as officials at the White House waited for word from Abbottabad, especially when one of the US helicopters crash landed inside the compound.
"We knew that there were gunshots and firing, but after that we just didn't know," Sec. Panetta told reporters Friday.
An agonizing 20 minutes later came the message: “Geronimo EKIA" – bin Laden’s code name and "enemy killed in action."
This week, the Obama-ordered demise of bin Laden – the chief mastermind of the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people – has moved from the nationally-unifying event it once was to something heavily tinged with partisan politics.
The Obama reelection campaign has a new video questioning whether Mitt Romney – the presumptive Republican challenger to Obama – would have ordered the mission against bin Laden. It’s based on a few things Mr. Romney said back in 2007.
The Romney camp and others (including Sen. John McCain) have lashed back, accusing Obama of misusing the death of bin Laden as a campaign tool.
Peter Bergen thinks there’s much more than that to how we should see the Obama-ordered end to bin Laden.
Mr. Bergen literally wrote the book on bin Laden. He’s recognized as a major expert on the now-deceased leader of Al Qaeda (one of the few who ever interviewed him) and its terrorist offshoots. His new work – “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden – from 9/11 to Abbottabad” – is set to release Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the SEAL Team 6 raid.
Writing in The New York Times the other day, Bergen said Obama “has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.”
He ticks off the use of military force Obama has ordered during his term as commander in chief:
Wiping out much of Al Qaeda’s leadership (including the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki); overwhelming US attacks from sea and air that led to the end of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi; greatly increased drone attacks in Pakistan (many times such attacks ordered during the Bush administration); covert wars in Yemen and Somalia; and a tripling of American troops in Afghanistan.
Still, observes Bergen, “From both the right and left, there has been a continuing, dramatic cognitive disconnect between Mr. Obama’s record and the public perception of his leadership: despite his demonstrated willingness to use force, neither side regards him as the warrior president he is.”
None of this should have been surprising, asserts Bergen. A year before his presidential nomination, Obama said this in a national security speech:
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan’s President at the time, Pervez Musharraf] won’t act, we will. I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.”
For that, he took flak from Republican presidential contenders McCain and Romney, as well as from his Democratic rival for the 2008 nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton (who would go on to become his powerful “team of rivals” Secretary of State).
Less than a year in office, Obama made essentially the same point in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” he said. “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”
The decision to go after bin Laden could have turned out as badly as the high-risk mission former President Jimmy Carter ordered to rescue the 52 Americans held captive in Iran in 1980. The mission failed when two US aircraft collided at a desert rendezvous point, killing eight American servicemen and probably ending Mr. Carter’s hopes for reelection.
But in Obama’s case, it didn’t fail – one reason Peter Bergen looks at Obama’s military record and describes him as “more Teddy Roosevelt than Jimmy Carter.”