Barack Obama Killed Osama Bin Laden. Period.
It was a bold, even risky decision, but he made it.
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The Republicans have glommed on to a neat rhetorical trick: When Barack Obama does something indisputably admirable or effective, simply pretend that he had nothing to do with it.
This ploy was first trotted out in the aftermath of Moamar Qaddafi’s downfall in Libya, when Obama’s former presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, gave all the credit to the French.
Now Mitt Romney, this year’s presumptive GOP nominee, is waving off Obama’s role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden—the president’s signal national-security achievement—by chortling that “any thinking American would have ordered the exact same thing,” even Jimmy Carter.
Two new investigative reports—a book by Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, and an article by Graham Allison in the May 7 issue of Time—thoroughly rebut that notion.
Far from the no-brainer that Romney depicts, the secret, high-level discussions leading up to the raid were fraught with intense debate and uncertainty—and Obama’s final decisions, on both whether and how to attack, went against some of his top advisers’ recommendations.
Vice President Joe Biden revealed a few months ago that he had urged Obama not to mount the assault. Bergen and Allison report that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joined him in the dissent—and they explain why.
In the weeks leading up to the decision, a group of counterterrorism officials, after conducting a “red-team” exercise of what could go wrong in such an attack, estimated that there was only a 40 percent chance Osama Bin Laden was actually in the compound. The CIA put the odds at 60 percent. Bergen quotes Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, as telling the president that “the circumstantial case of Iraq having WMD was actually stronger than the circumstantial case that bin Laden is living in the Abbottabad compound.”
Faced with these uncertainties, a president could have been forgiven for holding back. Certainly, a decision to go ahead was no “slam dunk.” More to the point, if Obama had given the order, and it turned out that Bin Laden wasn’t there, it is an absolute sure thing that, one year later, Romney and his allies would still be lampooning Obama for his foolhardy recklessness and accusing him of letting the world’s No. 1 terrorist slip through our fingers, perhaps this time for good.
Once Obama decided to attack, an equally weighty debate took place over how to go about it. Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and widely known at the time as “Obama’s favorite general”), recommended dropping a few dozen 2,000-pound bombs from a B-2 bomber. Others favored going in with missile-carrying drones.
Others, however, advised sending in SEAL Team Six, noting that an aerial attack might kill lots of civilians—perhaps even some in neighboring houses—and, in any case, would preclude certain knowledge that the strike had actually killed Bin Laden. Obama sided with the advocates of the far riskier raid.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.