Which decision's consequences posed the most risk?
"When President Obama was faced with the opportunity to act upon this," said Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, "the President had to evaluate the strength of that information and then made what I believe was one of the most gutsiest (sic) calls of any president in recent memory."
One of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory? On what basis, and by what measure?
Americans wanted Osama bin Laden — dead or alive, preferably dead. "How important," asked a 2006 Gallup poll, "do you think it is to the U.S. that Osama bin Laden be captured or killed?" The percentage of Americans who considered the apprehension or killing of bin Laden "somewhat important" to "extremely important" totaled an overwhelming 86 percent. Obama acted in accordance with popular opinion.
Worst-case scenario, the mission failed and bin Laden's guards massacred the SEALs. Obama, we are told, would have suffered the same political setback as did President Jimmy Carter following an unsuccessful military mission. Bad analogy. Carter was already broadly unpopular, fighting off a vigorous intra-party challenge to his renomination from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Seventy to 80 percent of Americans actually supported Carter's rescue attempt, and Carter received a brief bump in the polls.
The Gutsy Obama argument also claims Obama "boldly" risked angering Pakistan. But according to the U.K. "Guardian," President Bush and Pakistan's then-leader Pervez Musharraf had secretly agreed — 10 years ago — to allow an American military effort on Pakistan soil to capture or kill bin Laden. And, in 2008, when Pakistani elected a civilian government, Bush renewed the arrangement.
Now examine the political and national security risks undertaken by Bush with his 2007 decision to "surge" in Iraq by sending in 21,500 additional troops to reverse the deteriorating situation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Bush a "loser." Critics wrote the war off as a "blunder," "unwinnable," a "civil war." Seventy percent of Americans opposed the surge, according to an AP-Ipsos poll, "and a like number don't think such an increase would help stabilize the situation there."
Then-Sen. Obama opposed the surge and promised to try to stop it. He predicted that it would make things worse: "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse....So I am going to actively oppose the president's proposal."
Bush's former CIA director, George Tenet, in his book released in April 2007, questioned the surge: "Sectarian violence in Iraq has taken on a life of its own and ... U.S. forces are becoming more and more irrelevant to the management of that violence." NBC's Tom Brokaw said the decision to surge would "seem to most people ... like a folly."
Obama, on the other hand, said the Abbottabad intel on bin Laden gave the U.S. the "the best chance" to get him "since Tora Bora." Obama faced greater criticism had he refused to act.
Yes, civilians could have been killed, along with the SEALs. If so, what would have been the political and national security downside? That Obama erred by taking advantage of a secret deal to enter Pakistan? That Obama erred by using actionable intel to get the world's most wanted man, the spiritual leader of a global Islamofascist movement, a jihadi-terrorist who declared war on America, a mass murderer responsible for the slaughter of 3,000 Americans on American soil, a man whom 86 percent of Americans wanted captured or killed?
Would most Republicans have attacked Obama for an unsuccessful mission to kill bin Laden — especially given the Tora Bora failure under Bush? Republicans applaud Obama's decision to send in more troops in Afghanistan, and approve the stepped-up drone attacks in Pakistan. Republicans support Obama's continuation of Bush-era policies including rendition, Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, the state secrets doctrine, military tribunals and the terror surveillance program.
What about Obama's failed missions? Drone attacks have killed Pakistani civilians, for which the Obama administration has had to apologize. In an attempt to learn the location of bin Laden's second in command, seven CIA agents were killed on a CIA base in Afghanistan by a homicide bomber whom they mistakenly trusted. Bad stuff happens in war. Ask G.W. Bush.
The consequences, however, of an unsuccessful surge were catastrophic. The Iraq War would have been lost and abandoned. Terrorists would have been emboldened. The vacuum of a failed Iraq would have likely been filled by Iran, more confident than ever that a humiliated America planned to sit it out as Iran pursued a nuclear bomb. The perception of an America that loses wars then cuts and runs would have undermined the war in Afghanistan. The GOP would have been crippled for years under the avalanche of I-told-you-so's. Bush's political obituary would have been cast.
But Bush stood fast.
Obama certainly deserves credit and praise for greenlighting the successful strike against bin Laden. But Bush's decision to surge was a truly gutsy call — and it deserves acknowledgment as such.