Mike Kueber's Blog

May 9, 2011

Divided counsel

Last night, President Obama was on “60 Minutes,” and he provided viewers with his description of the killing of Osama bin Laden.  His interview, which was prerecorded earlier in the week, showed Obama at his best – knowledgeable and articulate, with good judgment and common sense.  Although his geopolitical views are distinctly neocolonial and his domestic political views are far left-of-center, he is unsurpassed in his ability to understand and connect with ordinary Americans.  Much of that ability, I suspect, is due to living his life outside of the Washington beltway.  Although he is a career politician, he has amazingly managed to avoid becoming co-opted by the D.C. establishment.  Of course, the values instilled in him by his mother and grandparents provided a solid foundation.   

Obama’s explanation in the “60 Minutes” interview of why he decided against releasing photos of a dead bin Laden provides an excellent example of Obama’s foundational values and common sense.  According to Obama on releasing the photos – “You know, that’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.  You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he’s gone. But we don’t need to spike the football.”  This part of the interview had been released earlier in the week to resolve a roiling public debate.

The “60 Minutes” interview contained several new facts about President Obama’s perspective of the mission:

  1. The likelihood of Osama being in the compound was 55%-45%.  Other news reports placed the likelihood at 60-80%, with one outlier at 40%.
  2. The “vast majority” of President Obama’s senior advisors did not know about the mission, but he side-stepped a question about whether Michelle knew. 
  3. Some advisors had “voiced doubts” about the mission.  Despite these doubts, President Obama decided to send in the SEALs instead of air-mailing some bombs because he wanted (a) proof of the kill and (b) access to the information/intelligence in the compound.  Obama indicated a tertiary concern for the lives of the SEALs and the lives of innocent non-combatants (but in my opinion these tended to cancel each other out).

Although Obama said that some advisors had “voiced doubts” about the mission, his National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went further on several Sunday talk shows and said the president had received divided counsel ahead of the raid and had shown decisiveness under pressure.  “I wouldn’t call it dissension. I would call it a divided counsel — that people had, were in favor of, different options,” he said on ABC

Normally an organization likes to present a united front on important decisions.  Donilon’s interviews suggest, however, that the Obama administration has decided to spin its decision to attack bin Laden with Navy SEALs as questionable and controversial. 

From my selfish perspective, this spin refutes my argument that the decision was a no-brainer since there were apparently smart people in the White House who disagreed with the decision.

The Washington Post went even further with the administration spin by reporting:

  • President Barack Obama faced sharply divided counsel and, in his mind, barely better-than-even odds of success when he ordered the May 1 commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the president said in an interview broadcast Sunday….  In doing so, he rejected the advice of a substantial number of his national security advisers, who worried that the plan to send ground troops deep into Pakistan was too risky, he said.”

The Post must have been listening to a different interview because I never heard anything about sharply divided counsel.  Of course, a cynic would say the administration is trumpeting about divided counsel because it spins the president’s leadership as sine qua non to elimination of bin Laden – i.e., although the intelligence and military performed their jobs admirably, the successful conclusion depended on a daring president who trusted.

My friend Robert from Austin recently suggested that a success has a thousand parents and a failure is an orphan.  That will probably prevent us from ever knowing the identity of all the Obama advisers who argued in favor of the bombing option.     

A question that I have not heard anyone ask is whether President Obama felt any pressure to act between the discovery of Osama bin Laden in September of 2010 and the actual kill mission in May of 2011.  During those eight months, the CIA continued to gather information that culminated in it concluding there was as much as an 80% probability that Osama was in the compound.  The advantage of waiting for this additional confirmation is clear, but what about the danger of Osama deserting the compound during this time or, more important, what about the danger that Osama would commit more mayhem while we were confirming his identity?  Wouldn’t there have been a huge benefit to cutting off the head of the snake months earlier?

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