“Geronimo EKIA” were the words radioed by the leader of SEAL Team Six just after boarding the Blackhawk helicopter in the Bin Laden complex in Abbattobad, Pakistan last Sunday. Geronimo, aka Osama Bin Laden, Enemy Killed in Action.
24 heroic Navy SEALS had rendered “justice”, however you define it, on an enemy of America and the civilized world.
It was a huge success, a critical moment for Western security, and one that could very well change the course of the war on terror (or, as President Obama calls it, the fight against “man caused disasters”). Who deserves the credit? Every one of these people, in this order: SEAL Team Six, our military, our civilian military leadership, President Obama, and President George W. Bush.
Let me comment on these last two. No matter what anyone says, President Obama made a bold and brave set of decisions here. You know complimenting Obama does not come easily to me, but I must in this case. It may seem that what was right was obvious, but make no mistake the President had to make a series of critical decisions, and he made the right ones. Do we bomb the complex safely from a B-2 bomber? Do we notify the Pakistanis before we take any action? Do we send in special forces? What orders do we give the soldiers on their mission, whichever path we choose?
Bombing from above risked no American lives, but it presented downsides of potential inability to verify success (would the Pakistanis find the body, and if they did would they say so?), offered no opportunity to potentially capture him alive, and there could be collateral damage (as it turned out, there were as many as 23 children in the complex).
In not notifying the Pakistanis, the President risked the relationship with a complex yet critically important ally. This would be an unauthorized manned incursion into their territory and would likely result in the death of other Pakistanis beyond Bin Laden. But notifying them risked a leak, and an escape, and the evaporation of years of intelligence work. The ramifications of not having notified them are yet to be felt, but they will likely be acceptable.
Sending in SEALS risked disaster in multiple forms. There were many points of potential failure: a shootdown of the Blackhawks before reaching their destination or after they left. The risk of lives of the SEAL’s during the operation. Bin Laden not being present or unfindable in a reasonable period of time. Death of multiple civilians.
But the President faced another type of disaster, and that was a political one. If this mission had failed in any of the ways above, he would suddenly become Jimmy Carter (remembering our failure in Iran). Surely he put his Presidency and re-election prospects on the line. Of course there was an upside too– success, which we achieved, would bring a wave of positive support– and so it has.
He also had to decide what we would do with the body, and he properly decided to follow Muslim practices as closely as we could pragmatically do. Washing the body, burying it at sea following a ceremony traditional to Muslims was the right thing to do. This decision was full of risk as well because there are many who would understandably say that he should be afforded no such treatment. In fact, one friend commented to me that Bin Laden killed 4 of his best friends in Tower 2, one of whom jumped out of his window right after telling his wife he loved her and their kids just after he hung up his cell phone.
In the end the decision on the body was the right and most balanced one, as difficult for some as it is (Some Muslims think it was not dignified enough, and many Americans think it was too much so).
And now for George W. Bush. As much as the Obama Administration is trying to downplay it, it is a fact that the name of the courier who we traced to the complex was revealed by Khalid Sheik Mohamed during his “enhanced interrogation”. Attorney General Eric Holder would only say the complete set of intelligence came from “a mosaic of sources”, but clearly many of the tiles in this mosaic were a result of the Bush policies that, once criticized by Obama vehemently, Obama continued. Guantanamo, rendition, enhanced interrogation, military tribunals, wiretapping, and other gifts from President Bush to President Obama were surely critical success factors. Another aspect relates to President Obama’s announcement on Sunday night that we had eliminated Osama Bin Laden was the way in which he announced it. He generally kept the right balance between joy and somberness, but he shamefully failed to name President Bush. This was a time to put aside partisan and political interests and to share with the nation that the quest of his predecessor and himself to capture or kill Bin Laden was complete. President Bush was in office when 9/11 occurred, he invested heavily in the search for Bin Laden, he had laid much of the groundwork for success which I previously mentioned, and he should have been named in this speech. In fact, this was another situation where we saw how egocentric our President is. In his speech he used his favorite two words, “me” and “I”, 10 times more than anyone else would have. In fact, if you want to have some fun, get a Youtube file of the President’s announcement of Osama’s death, break out a bottle of tequila, and play a drinking game. Every time he says “I” or “me”, do a shot of tequila. Just don’t plan to drive home afterwards! President Obama did (rightly) invite President Bush to the wreath laying ceremony today, but President Bush (wrongly in my view) said no. I believe he said no either because he didn’t want to crowd Obama out during his moment, or perhaps he is so disappointed in Obama for the unprecedented slamming of his administration by Obama that he couldn’t bring himself to stand next to this man who has been so undignified in his treatment of the former president.
A few other comments. While I tend to agree with the President about not releasing the photo of a dead Bin Laden, the rationale that has been offered is dishonest and condescending. The President says he sees no need to “spike the football”, or to display the photos as a “trophy”. “It is not who we are”, he says. But surely most rational people don’t want the photo released for that reason. The photo exists, it presents a certain “fact” that Bin Laden is dead. The true fear is that the photo may inspire radical Muslims and may be used as a recruiting tool. This fear is rational, and a good reason not to release the photo. To say that we aren’t releasing it because it would be “spiking the football” is an insult to America and our values.
In regards to the reaction in America to Bin Laden’s death, almost everything I saw was appropriate. There were a few video clips I found to be discomforting and wouldn’t want broadcast on Al Jazeera because some may view the celebrations as blood-lust. But Americans were happy, I was happy, that Osama had been found and killed. A man who killed directly and indirectly thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of others (perhaps more than a million when all is said and done), was rendered mute. And in the “treasure trove” of intelligence we learned, just by its existence in his compound, that he was still active on many levels and a key factor in Al Queda both operationally as well as from a leadership perspective.
And surely in this brutal world we live in, his death sends a message to other butchers. Saddam Hussein, Zarqawi, Udi and Qusay Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and many other terrorists have met their fate at the hands of our military. While one can argue anything they want because its unprovable, this has surely given pause to many would-be terrorists. The world and America is safer today than it was last week, probably by a lot in the long run.
There is much to imagine about this successful mission, including and especially what it was like on board those Blackhawks and inside that compound. We don’t have any of the audio or video yet, but hopefully at some point portions of it will be released. In the meantime, imagine for a moment you are in the White House Situation Room as President Obama, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and others were, and you were watching the incursion live, listening to the audio, waiting anxiously for the results knowing the stakes. It had to be a surreal moment, something even Jack Bauer could not recreate, 40 minutes of tension well beyond any these people had experienced in their lifetimes. What must it have been like in that room, after all those minutes on the edge of your seat, when over the audio they heard: “Geronimo EKIA”. Wow.
See the photo below: