Mike Kueber's Blog

May 5, 2011

Getting carried away – lessons learned about Obama from the killing of Osama

Maureen Dowd of the NY Times wrote a column yesterday titled Cool Hand Barack.”  In the column, she compared Barack Obama not only to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” but also to Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”  That’s fine; poetic license is fine.  But then Maureen attempted to distinguish between Obama and his milquetoast predecessor, Jimmy Carter:

  • But now the president has shown he can lead straight-on and that, unlike Jimmy Carter, he knows how to order up that all-important backup helicopter. He has said that those who call him a wimp are mistaken, that there is often muscular purpose beneath his diffident surface.”

That’s not fine; that is not poetic license or mere hyperbole.  I don’t think anyone in a position to know has indicated that Obama had anything to do with the back-up choppers. 

Maureen’s bald misstatement reminds me of Senator Kyl’s statement that 90% of the work of Planned Parenthood involves abortion and his follow-up comment that the statement was not intended to be factual.  Perhaps Maureen expected her readers to realize that she was merely attempting to prove her point. 

You might think that I am being too picky with Maureen, but she is not alone.  Today Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne went even further in trying to create a legendary Barack Obama.  His description of Obama as a warrior (“sheer audacity”) evoked Robert E. Lee, but Dionne also noted, “It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence — for example, making sure that additional helicopters were available to our Navy SEALs.”

You will have to read Dionne’s entire column to get the full flavor of his man-love for Obama.  For now, let these closing words suffice:

  • “And anyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.  This single action does not ‘change everything,’ because nothing ever changes everything. Killing one man does not settle two messy wars. Obama’s political standing will ultimately rise or fall largely on the basis of domestic issues and economic circumstances. The president’s supporters will again experience bouts of frustration when his philosophical caution prevails over his bold streak in the less martial work of negotiating budgets and promoting the general welfare at home. His opponents will not suddenly embrace his priorities.  But because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.”

I wonder what was the “sheer audacity” of the assault on Osama bin Laden.”  Surely, things could have gone wrong, as they did with President Carter, but what choice did President Obama have.  He had already waited for months for intelligence to raise the likelihood of Osama being in the compound to 60-80%.  I suppose he could have waited longer.  His only other options were (a) to bomb the hell out of the compound or (b) involve the Pakistanis.  I don’t know anyone who has argued that those were better options.

Let’s assume that President Obama did not actually plan the assault, including the back-up choppers, then please tell me how Obama was a difference-maker.


  1. I have read that because of Jarrett’s advice against undertaking the mission and because of Obama’s eternal equivocation, that the Mil/Intel heads actually circumvented POTUS and put their own careers on the line by proceeding. Not high marks for the one who leads from behind and afar.

    Comment by Bob Bevard — May 5, 2011 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

  2. Mike,

    “Hindsight is 20/20” and “Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan,” come to mind when I read your post. The option which has been utilized most often is the drone attack. To say that “I wonder what was the “sheer audacity” of the assault on Osama bin Laden.” Surely, things could have gone wrong, as they did with President Carter, but what choice did President Obama have,” as you did is 20/20 hindsight. Let’s say that the SEALs had been captured and held hostage, tortured and beheaded on videotape (as was the real probability if they had been captured). Who would have been lambasted for not using a 2000 pound bomb? Why risk the men’s lives? You know bin Laden is there, just drop a bomb!

    Sending the men in was very risky, not assured of success and had a thousand down sides. They performed brilliantly, killed bin Laden, got his body, blew up the downed chopper, flew out of Pakistan to safety just like we all hoped it would work and all of a sudden its, “well, that was the only option.” There were so many, many, many chances that this would fail. Much easier to say that it was an easy call with 20/20 hindsight.

    Comment by Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez — May 5, 2011 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

    • Robert, I disagree with several of your points:

      1. The Seals did not perform brilliantly; they performed adequately. One of their high-tech choppers malfunctioned, and had to be left behind (to be shared, apparently, with the Chinese). That’s not their fault, but after Carter’s failed mission it makes you question the reliability of these birds. The forty Seals were confronted by one armed man, and they killed him; they killed an unarmed Osama because he “resisted.” I am not questioning the Seal’s courage or ability; I am merely pointing out that the situation they encountered did not require much ability, although it required immense courage. They were fortunate that Osama was not in a strong defensive position.

      2. There was not much risk of hostage, torture, or beheading. This action took place in a country that is ostensibly an American ally. We have CIA people throughout the country, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some on the ground nearby. We should have been able to trust them with this information.

      3. I think the advantages of going with “boots on the ground” are (a) a higher likelihood of mission success, and (b) the ability to confirm that success. The disadvantage is that Americans (Seals) were more likely to be harmed (and arguably we wanted to minimize collateral injuries to noncombatants). Thus, Obama concluded that the advantages outweighed the disadvantage(s). As I said in my blog, I don’t think that analysis is is loaded with “sheer audacity” or “daring.” Any president would have made that same decision.

      P.S., according to this NY Times article, CIA operatives had the bin Laden compound under surveillance for months. Thus, America should have had a solid understanding of the amount of opposition in the compound. I wonder if the operatives played any role in the assault. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/world/asia/06intel.html?hp.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — May 6, 2011 @ 1:42 am | Reply

  3. It seems to me that there are two Mike Kuebers: one that is open-minded, and ready to reconsider his pre-existing presumptions, and then the one that wrote this blog post, and replied to Mr. Icenhauer-Ramirez. I find the latter Mike Kueber rather appalling, and am–true to form–appalled.

    I have no particular dogs in this hunt, but your blanket dismissal of Mr. Icenhauer-Ramirez quite well-reasoned points was kind of shocking in their doctrinaire simple-mindedness.

    If you don’t think that taking out Obama took some considerable political risk, and was far from a no-brainer consider:

    1. If the mission had failed in a public or spectacular way, it could have spelled the end of Obama’s political viability. I am utterly convinced that if Carter’s attempted rescue of the hostages had succeeded, he would have been handily re-elected.

    2. You think it’s easy to do unauthorized combat operations in a nominally friendly country in which you have no permission to operate? You think it was easy to plan and execute this mission without the cooperation of the Pakistanis?

    3. You think Osama should have been taken alive? Are you effing serious??? We’d have a terrorist event a month during his incarceration, trial, and thereafter. I’m quite sure that the instructions were to get Osamsa, “dead or dead.”

    4. No chance of hostages, beheading or blowback operating in the heart of an Islamic country, mere miles from its capital, while taking out an Islamist’s hero?

    I have watched this blog over the months, because you seem to have an interesting war going between your open-minded brain and your reflexively right-wing heart. But in this case, the head seems to have gone on vacation. I hope it’s having a good time.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 6, 2011 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

    • Anonymous, thank you for your interesting comments. I agree that I am still struggling to reconcile the college liberal with the retired conservative. For some additional context, you should know that Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez is my best friend from law school. I think he’s become more liberal with age because he has been studying history at the University of Texas in Austin and recently earned his masters.

      I agree that there was tremendous downside to Obama if the mission had gone badly, like Carter’s did. Obama’s presidency, like Carter’s, would have been doomed. But that doesn’t mean Obama had an option to avoid that risk. You and Robert seem to be suggesting that a bomb would have been more likely to kill Obama. I don’t agree, and I haven’t heard experts opine on that issue.

      No, I don’t think the mission was easy to plan and execute. I appears the only glitch was the chopper going down. Initially that was called a mechanical error, but now it sounds like the crash was caused by unexpected turbulence or pilot error.

      No, I don’t think Osama should have been taken alive unless he attempted to surrender. Krauthammer’s column today accurately distinguished between the conduct of a military action vs. a police action. This was a military action and the objective is to kill the combatants unless they surrender.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — May 7, 2011 @ 12:37 am | Reply

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