The identification and killing of Osama bin Laden is a remarkable achievement by the military, intelligence community and Obama administration. Reaching this long-held target, a now decade-old mission, would have been a tremendous moment even if the compound outside Islamabad had been bombed by a drone plane that didn’t allow for stories of commando Navy SEALS—and even if the president hadn’t announced the event in a suspenseful close-to-midnight-on-Sunday televised address.
But it wasn’t, and he did. While the death of Osama bin Laden would surely have been a defining moment of the Obama presidency, the fact that it played out the way it did is what turns this into a truly watershed event for the president. Between the drama of the announcement, Obama's decisiveness on authorizing a riskier operation and, most of all, the seemingly perfect execution of intelligence gathering methods and the special forces operation, this historic event is a reminder that while meeting goals is an achievement in itself, how they're met is where the exponential power of an accomplishment lies.
The mission was authorized on Friday and originally planned for Saturday, reports say, but was delayed due to weather. Even if there was no master plan for when to carry out the mission, its timing could not have been more perfect. It happened just months before the U.S. will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan, giving the president a note of closure before the controversial exit begins. Despite the fact that the news leaked between the time a pending statement was announced and the time Obama gave his speech, the immediacy of the revelation lent the occasion an air of transparency. Presidents do not make surprise announcements on Sunday night at 10:30 p.m.—or after 11:30 p.m., when the delayed speech finally started—unless there is profound news to share, making the announcement all the more dramatic and celebratory.
In addition, Obama’s apparent decisiveness on the matter stands in opposition to many of the images that have been painted of the president’s leadership style. Known as a consultative consensus-builder by his fans and a dithering doormat to those who most staunchly oppose him, the president’s expedient and decisive approach to authorizing the killing of bin Laden should quiet even the fiercest critics of his decision-making style. Rightly or wrongly, there was no consultation with Pakistani leaders, in whose territory the bin Laden compound resided. Congress was only notified after the fact. And it was the president who demanded that the operation be a much riskier air assault that would land Navy SEALS in the compound rather than a bombing from the air using high-tech drones.
It was this decision that may have some of the most widespread ripple effects. Americans are now being treated to stories of what appears to be a Hollywood-worthy, masterfully executed operation, in which Navy SEALS entered the compound, left behind a malfunctioning helicopter with no idea if they’d have a way to be lifted out, shot Osama bin Laden in the head without American fatalities and departed on a reinforcement helicopter just 40 minutes later with the body. Not only did their actions allow bin Laden’s death to be proved with a certainty that no drone attack could, but they are sure to boost the morale of active-duty service members and inspire a generation of potential military and intelligence recruits.
Much of the world would still be celebrating if Osama bin Laden had been killed by less dramatic means. But the remarkable precision and authority with which the event was carried out makes the impact on Obama’s presidency and the reputation of U.S. military and intelligence likely to be even more extraordinary. In leadership, it’s important to remember that while it’s the “what” that matters, it’s often the “how” that makes the real impact.
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