Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gutsy or Expedient?

The initial reaction from supporters of President Obama to the death of Osama bin Laden was to call the President's actions "gutsy". This was the universal description but is it accurate?

The President could have done three things. He could have waited for more information. Apparently the CIA felt that their information was as good as it was going to get in the foreseeable future but he could have waited anyway. Between "kiss and tell" books and Wikileaks, this would have eventually gotten out and Obama's career would have been over. He could have ordered an air strike. This would have eliminated the chances of any American deaths but it would also have made positive identification difficult and eliminated any chance of gaining intelligence information from the building. Given that they were positive that the building was occupied by al Qaida, this would have been the act of a very foolish president.

So Obama ordered an armed attack. The advantages are obvious - a huge jump in the polls and intelligence information. America would have forgiven Obama if there had been American casualties so there were few risks. Afghanistan was insulted but they would have looked just as bad if a missile strike had killed bin Laden.

Obama made the right choice but it was the only one that was really open to him. That makes it expedient instead of gutsy.

There are aspects of the operation that are troubling. Officially the team was sent to kill or capture bin Laden but the rules of engagement made it almost impossible for bin Laden to be captured. There is some validity to bin Laden's son's complaints about his father being shot in the dead of night and his body dumped in the ocean. We have shrugged this off because Osama "needed killing" and bringing him to trial would have been a nightmare. There are also international issues about sending a squad into a friendly country without notifying them first. All of these have been shrugged off as irrelevant since this was a one-time issue. I think that conservatives are justified in asking if Bush would have gotten the same hands-off reaction? Would candidate Obama have approved of the actions of President Obama? Given the unsanctioned assassination attempt on Qaddafi, some discussion needs to take place. To what extent are President Obama's actions driven by expediency rather than policy or legality?

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