A hard jab at O that has the added benefit of being true. Jimmeh gave the order for Operation Eagle Claw; why wouldn’t he give the order to liquidate OBL? The politics of counterterrorism being what they are, it’s easier for a president to err on the side of aggression than passivity. If Obama had sent in the SEALs and things had gone wrong, it would have been embarrassing and politically damaging but O could always plead that his motives were pure and that he’d been duly diligent. He was after Public Enemy Number One, he had decent intel, and he’d assigned the best troops in the world to the mission. By 2011, respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty on something like this was pure folly given the depth of ISI’s treachery in Afghanistan for the past 10 years. In fact, here’s a sensational tidbit about the raid buried in Newsweek’s new story on the hunt for Zawahiri:
“There are indicators that some elements of the Pakistani government may be protecting Zawahiri,” says a U.S. intel official who did not want to be named discussing sensitive information. “We have reports that he’s been hanging out in Karachi for brief periods, and we just don’t think he’s going to be doing that without a lot of people knowing about it.”…
The distrust only got worse after the bin Laden raid. President Obama, fearing a leak, ordered that Pakistan be kept in the dark. The United States, in fact, expected that the Navy SEALs would bring back evidence that Pakistani intelligence was cooperating with al Qaeda. Newsweek has learned that shortly after the SEALs stormed bin Laden’s hideout, federal prosecutors were laying the groundwork to issue sealed indictments against members of the Pakistani government or anyone else they believed had aided bin Laden. The charge, according to two law-enforcement sources, would have been “harboring a fugitive terrorist.”
The SEALs carted away boxes of computers, hard drives, thumb drives, DVDs, and thousands of documents. It was the greatest intel haul on al Qaeda’s operations and habits since 9/11: 3.4 terabytes of information, according to an intelligence source, including a personal journal by bin Laden, outlines for aspirational plots, cellphone numbers, and other contact information for al Qaeda allies. No smoking gun on Pakistani complicity was found, however, and no indictments were returned.
Romney’s taking heat today for having scolded Obama in 2007 over his willingness to cross an ally’s borders to grab Bin Laden, but that was a closer call at the time than it is now. No one was under any illusions then either about ISI double-dealing, but Musharraf seemed to have more control over the agency than Kayani or the current weak civilian government does and he was on better terms with the U.S. than Pakistan is now after another five years of proxy terror in Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of seeing him toppled in the aftermath of a U.S. cross-border incursion was one of the arguments against it, which helps explain why even prominent Democrats at the time challenged Obama on his plan. Five years later, with Musharraf gone and U.S. trust in Pakistan deteriorated to the point where the DOJ was actually preparing terrorism indictments against its leaders, your options on grabbing a top jihadi inside its borders are straightforward. Either you do it or it’s not getting done.
That’s one reason O felt pressured to act. The other reason, as I mentioned up top, is that the politics of this issue simply do not allow for passivity. Obama must have considered what the reaction would be if he’d declined to give the order and the NYT dropped a bombshell six months later about how Bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad and recently left — and that O and the CIA suspected he was there but had refused to act. The GOP would have destroyed him over it. He would have been finished politically. That’s why, when Bush was asked by CNN waaay back in 2006 whether he’d send troops into Pakistan to get Bin Laden — and remember, this was when his pal Musharraf was still in charge — he answered, “Absolutely.” When you’re president and someone asks you a question about whether you’d do X, Y, or Z to get the guy responsible for 9/11, the answer’s always going to be “absolutely,” even if there are truly significant risks to whatever X, Y, or Z might be.
In the end, I think David Frum’s right that the tough call wasn’t whether to give the order but whether to put boots on the ground or just bomb the compound to smithereens and hope that OBL was there. Sending in troops was riskier because having the SEALs taken prisoner or killed in action in a futile effort would have been very hard for O to explain, but I’m not so sure it was much riskier than bombing. An airstrike deep inside Pakistan, right down the road from the military academy, would have been extremely provocative. The target might have been so devastated that there’d be no way to tell if Bin Laden was a casualty or not. In fact, even if he was there and ended up dead in the rubble, ISI surely would have scooped up the body, ferried it away, and then claimed that the bomb had destroyed an orphanage or something. If you’re going to gamble on something like this, you at least want to be sure that you’ve got your man. Sending troops was the only way.