Obama’s fickle European fans


If Europeans could vote for U.S. president, Barack Obama would have carried that continent by a landslide in 2008. Who can forget the cheering in Berlin for the “proud citizen of the world?” Youthful, urbane, and broadly in agreement with European views of Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogation,” Obama had been in office only a few months when a select group of Norwegians gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. 

But now many of Obama’s erstwhile Euro-fans are feeling a twinge of buyer’s remorse. By ordering a covert raid on Pakistan that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs, Obama has earned the kind of condemnation Europe’s cognoscenti once reserved for his predecessor, George W. Bush.

And nowhere is the chorus more moralistic than in Germany, where former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat, has pronounced the action “clearly a violation of international law.” The quality press is full of carping and quibbling. Handelsblatt called the raid “an act that violates both the international prohibition of force and humanitarian law." Der Spiegel, under the headline “Justice, American Style,” reports an expert’s view that it’s “questionable whether the USA can still claim to be engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaida.” Elsewhere in the same journal, a reporter calls NewYork celebrations of bin Laden’s death “reminiscent of Muslims celebrating in the Gaza Strip after the 9/11 attacks.”

To be sure, the criticism is not universal. The newspaper Bild opined that “it is not only good that bin Laden is dead. It is also good that the U.S., after ten agonizing years, has finally freed itself from his terrible stranglehold.” Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced herself “glad” that the terrorist chieftain was dead. 

But German clerics and politicians immediately chided Merkel for her lack of tact, claiming that she might inflame the Muslim world. And Bild is a right-wing tabloid, the less-than-respectable news source of subway strap-hangers and consruction foremen.

The fashionable critique of Obama and the U.S. achieved its purest form on ARD Television, Germany’s equivalent of the BBC, where commentator Jörg Schoenenborn pompously observed that nothing good could come from Obama’s Bush-like breach of international law. “Al Qaeda will seek revenge,” he asserts, “so, is the world any safer? No.” Yet Americans dance in the streets, which Scheonenborn attributed to something essential, and essentially primitive, in the American character. The USA is, after all, “quite a foreign land to me. What kind of country celebrates an execution in such a way?”

It never occurs to Schoenenborn that Americans might not be celebrating bin Laden’s death as such but the suddenly real chance that a long and costly struggle could end — and end in victory, no less. To be sure, optimism does not come naturally in Central Europe, for good historical reasons. And victory is not a word that comes readily to the lips of U.S. officials waging this war. But it’s actually quite rational to suppose that the decapitation of al Qaeda, plus the exposure of its Pakistani safe haven and the recovery of a vast intelligence trove may, in fact, hasten the organization’s end. Certainly the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than it was before.

What kind of country celebrates? The same one that elected Obama in the first place. Perhaps Schoenenborn and Obama’s other critics across the pond missed the part of the 2008 campaign in which Obama quite clearly promised that "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” He also said that “if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."

It was Republican John McCain who questioned the wisdom of Obama’s plan in part because it would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. All right-thinking Europeans despised him.

The only way the German TV commentator can make sense of this is to insinuate that Obama abandoned his true principles to curry favor with the unreasoning American electorate. He is “in a political campaign and has distinguished himself as a ‘law and order’ candidate,” Schoenenborn observed. “Has he gotten closer to re-election? Yes. I’m afraid the balance is just that simple.”

Schoenenborn never seems to consider that Obama took a huge political risk by ordering this operation, which could have gone wrong in a thousand ways – and would have destroyed him politically if it did. The safe course, politically, was to keep the SEALs’ powder dry. Was it an “execution?” Perhaps. What little “resistance” bin Laden offered seems to have been in the nature of the inherent danger posed by a man who had made his living killing by stealth, sponsoring suicide bombings – and swearing to die with his boots on.

But would any of Europe’s moralizers have been more pleased if the U.S. had blown bin Laden and his house away with a B-2 bomber or a Predator drone strike – the president’s other options? More to the point, do the critics have a realistic suggestion as to how the president could have met their demand to arrest bin Laden and put him on trial — without violating the sovereignty of the double-dealing nation, Pakistan, where he had unlawfully found refuge?

Part of the reason Obama chose to send ground forces to deal with bin Laden “up close and personal” was to limit civilian casualties, which the Navy SEALs did, almost unbelievably well. They harmed none of the dozen or so children with whom bin Laden surrounded himself, even though he knew that he was subject to U.S. attack at any time.

This was the kind of choice that responsible statesman hate to face but cannot avoid. And Obama’s handling of it epitomized leadership – decisive, nervy, humane. If it earns him the same scorn Europe’s fickle intelligentsia once heaped on his predecessor, then he, like his predecessor, should wear it as a badge of honor.

Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, federal fiscal issues and business, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog.

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