How much credit does Obama get for bin Laden’s reported death?
“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
--President Barack Obama, May 2, 2011
No, we cannot confirm that Osama bin Laden is dead. Perhaps that’s the ultimate fact check. He’s reportedly been buried at sea but we’re still waiting for a photograph of the body, an official DNA test, something like that. The Pentagon says bin Laden’s wife identified him by name. For the conspiracy buffs out there, however, clearly something happened Sunday in Abbottabad—see the tweets of Sohaib Athar.
Let’s just say any White House is pretty careful about having the president making a dramatic announcement late on a Sunday night. If any evidence emerges to cast doubt on this achievement, Obama would be a laughingstock.
But this does bring up another question: How much credit does Obama deserve for this achievement? And how much will he get?
The president’s statement was notably spare on details, but he clearly thinks he should get a lot of credit. He noted that bin Laden had “avoided capture” for many years and emphasized that “shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.”
Then follow a lot of other “I” sentences. “I was briefed….I met repeatedly…I determined…today, at my direction, the United States launched…” Former President George W. Bush is not mentioned until Obama noted that he had made clear this was not a war against Islam.
However, in a later background briefing for reporters, officials said that four years ago the identity was determined of the courier who ultimately led to bin Laden. That would place a key moment in the search back in the Bush administration. Officials also said that “about two years ago” U.S. intelligence discovered the areas in Pakistan where he operated. That sounds as if it happened during Obama’s presidency but the timing is vague enough that it could have overlapped with Bush’s. Other key events, such as the discovery of bin Laden’s compound and the decision to attack it, took place during Obama’s presidency.
As a presidential candidate, during one of the presidential debates, Obama had boasted, “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
But once he was elected, Obama tried to play down expectations. “My preference, obviously, would be to capture or kill him,” Obama said. “But if we have so tightened the noose that he’s in a cave somewhere and can’t even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America.”
The question of presidential credit has proven dicey for some Republicans. Many have tried to slip in a mention of Bush. For instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said: “I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing bin Laden to justice.”
Here is how former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it: “Credit belongs to the courageous special operators who executed the mission. ….All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al-Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): “I also want to commend President Obama and his team, as well as President Bush, for all of their efforts to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”
However, former Vice President Cheney simply called it “a tremendous achievement for the military and intelligence professionals who carried out this important mission,” adding: “I also want to congratulate President Obama and the members of his national security team.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, gave perhaps the classiest response: “This is a great moment for the United States. And let me, as a Republican, give President Obama tremendous credit for this. This was a significant military operation. He had to pull the trigger on it; he carried it out,” King said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I supported President Bush's policies; the fact is it was President Obama who carried this mission to conclusion. I think it's important for all Americans to stand behind him and give him the credit as commander-in-chief for what he did.”
The Bottom Line
There are times when a president takes credit—or is given credit—for things that he has little control over, such as the economy. He also gets the blame for a bad economy, even though it may take years for the policies he put in place to have an impact. It’s the nature of politics.
In this case, Obama clearly built on efforts initiated during the Bush administration. (A big, as yet unanswered question: Did the information about the courier come from “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Bush administration that Obama later condemned?) The kind of seamless teamwork apparently demonstrated by U.S. operatives and intelligence officials in crafting and conducting this operation does not happen overnight.
But it is also true that ultimately Obama had to make the final decision on whether to proceed. As was later documented in Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” then President Bill Clinton failed to make a firm tactical decision about how to best capture or kill bin Laden. And if the mission had been a public failure, in the middle of a suburban Pakistani neighborhood, Obama would have gotten the blame—as Jimmy Carter would attest about the failure to rescue hostages held in Iran.
Obama might have given a bit more of a public shout-out to his predecessor. But the buck stops with the current occupant of the White House. Certainly, if bin Laden had not been found, Obama’s Republican rival might have used a clip of Obama promising to kill bin Laden in some kind of attack ad.
We’re with Pete King on this one: This happened on Obama’s watch, and he will reap the credit.