Bret Stephens writing in the Wall Street Journal on Osama bin Laden’s killing evidences unusual churlishness toward former president George W. Bush. He suggests Bush didn’t understand the difference between “justice” and “vengeance” and pronounces:
[T]here can be no true justice without vengeance. Oddly enough, this is something Barack Obama, Chicago liberal, seems to better grasp than George W. Bush, Texas cowboy.
The former president was fond of dilating on the point, as he put it just after 9/11, that “ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice.” What on Earth did that mean? Of course we sought revenge. “Ridding the world of evil,” Mr. Bush’s other oft-stated ambition, was nonsense if we didn’t make a credible go of ridding the world of the very specific evil named Osama bin Laden.
For all of Mr. Bush’s successes—and yes, there were a few, including the vengeance served that other specific evil known as Saddam Hussein and those Gitmo interrogations that yielded bin Laden’s location—you can trace the decline of his presidency from the moment he said, in March 2002, that “I really don’t care [where bin Laden is]. It’s not that important.”
Anyone can find a stray quote from a president for most any proposition, I suppose, but this is nonsense in a hoop skirt. It sure will come as a shock to critics who found Bush too angry, too fixated on Sept. 11 and too “irrational” in his desire to avenge nearly 3,000 dead Americans.. Recall that it was Bush who declared on a pile of rubble: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon!” Is that “vengeful” enough? Or maybe you remember this from Bush’s Sept. 14 speech: “This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger.” I am confident that Bush, a devout Christian, understands “justice” as something beyond a legal process. Justice, in the Biblical sense, also denotes righteousness and retribution.
Moreover, was 2002 really the beginning of the decline of Bush’s presidency? The successful Iraq surge was yet to come, as were the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices and his own reelection. Oh, and we also learn from a riveting New York Times account that:
It wasn’t until after 2002, when the agency began rounding up Qaeda operatives — and subjecting them to hours of brutal interrogation sessions in secret overseas prisons — that they finally began filling in the gaps about the foot soldiers, couriers and money men Bin Laden relied on.
It is quite clear that there is plenty of credit to go around. The Times reports:
The raid was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, including the interrogation of C.I.A. detainees in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, where sometimes what was not said was as useful as what was. Intelligence agencies eavesdropped on telephone calls and e-mails of the courier’s Arab family in a Persian Gulf state and pored over satellite images of the compound in Abbottabad to determine a “pattern of life” that might decide whether the operation would be worth the risk.
Sure sounds like Bush considered bin Laden an important get.
But likewise, conservatives should not be miserly in recognition for Obama’s role in bin Laden’s assassination. The outcome of the operation was not certain, and there were tough calls to be made:
Mr. Gates was skeptical about a helicopter assault, calling it risky, and instructed military officials to look into aerial bombardment using smart bombs. But a few days later, the officials returned with the news that it would take some 32 bombs of 2,000 pounds each. . . . “It would have created a giant crater, and it wouldn’t have given us a body,” said one American intelligence official. . . .
Around the table [last Thursday], the group went over and over the negative scenarios. There were long periods of silence, one aide said. And then, finally, Mr. Obama spoke: “I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now — I’m going to go back and think about it some more.” But he added, “I’m going to make a decision soon.”
Sixteen hours later, he had made up his mind. Early the next morning, four top aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room. Before they could brief the president, he cut them off. “It’s a go,” he said.
In sum, two presidents did what was necessary to achieve a magnificent success. It is unwarranted and unfair to sleight either.