The PJ Tatler

While our professional military got its man in Pakistan, it's still amateur hour in Washington

From all we know of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, the SEALs conducted a purely clinical, professional operation made possible by years of patient intelligence gathering. The SEALs got in, identified their target, took him down, secured his remains, and scoured the site for intelligence, coming away with a treasure trove of information on al Qaeda. Reports indicate that they captured a trove of information that will probably prove useful in prosecuting the war and capturing other al Qaeda figures, both those who may have been living nearby and those who may be farther afield. The SEALs suffered no casualties, and apart from the loss of a helicopter, lost nothing beyond the rounds they expended in the firefight. It’s somewhat trite to say, but this mission showcased the undeniable fact that our military is the best in the world, and its precise yet overwhelming finish on OBL sent a message that will echo around the world: Don’t mess with the Americans.

But on the other hand, while the pros carry out the hard work overseas, we’re still left with a cast of amateurs in Washington. Chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan continues to underwhelm. He conducted a thorough and informative press briefing on Monday that turned out to be full of error and misstatement. It is his job to know these things, the nation depends to some extent on his knowing them, yet he doesn’t, and still has his job. Why didn’t the administration that’s taking so long to decide whether to release photos of dead bin Laden take a few minutes to get its story straight before sending Brennan out in front of the press? The walkback of much of what he said, just 24 hours after he said it, told the world that the president’s top counterterrorism man is still out of the same loop has been out of since he landed the job. Oh well, at least Brennan is as competent as the DNI, James Clapper.

And President Obama could benefit from an understanding that it’s often best to let others discover your greatness on their own. His statement Sunday night, while mostly appropriate in tone, nevertheless elevated bin Laden by the mere fact that the President of the United States commanded airtime to deliver it himself. The president noted several times his own role, “I made it a priority…” and “I gave the authorization…” and so forth, putting himself at the center of the story. He had made a call that any president in his shoes would make, and the outcome rested on courageous US special forces risking their lives thousands of miles away. But here is how he described the chain of events.

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden.  It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.  And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

He inherited much of the intel that led to the raid from his scorned predecessor, and should have acknowledged that fact. He would have looked like a statesman had he done so. But he didn’t. As Americans have learned the details the president did not provide, the case for his greatness, a case articulated by His Greatness, gets chipped away. We now know that President Bush withstood blistering criticism from Obama and the entire left on a subject that it has now been proven Bush was correct on, and from which now Obama stands to benefit politically: The interrogation of captured terrorists at Gitmo. Without that, the intelligence that led to bin Laden is never developed.

When Obama did acknowledge President Bush, it was again in the context of Obama’s own actions — “I called him up to tell him what had happened,” basically. In making himself the star, the president has ended up surrendering a great deal of goodwill that would naturally have flowed to him if he had let others, perhaps Gen. Petraeus or Leon Panetta, explain the raid and the president’s role in it.

And now his entire speech may yet unravel. There is an unsourced report out today that Obama had to be more or less overridden to make the mission happen. That report, while highly suspect and unverified, comports with the image established over the last two years of an indecisive president unsure of his footing on the world stage. It is therefore unlikely to go away.

Beyond this, there is the question of how we should have treated the corpse of bin Laden. The burial at sea makes sense as a way to prevent his body or his grave site from becoming relics or shrines. But for years the United States has insisted that bin Laden is not a good or mainstream Muslim. We are fighting him and his ideology, but not Islam itself. If we meant that, then why go out of our way to insist that we treated his remains in accordance with Islamic tradition? Mainstream Muslims should see that as at best a desecration of their practices, and radicals will not be mollified by anything other than a total surrender and a renouncing of our alliance with Israel. So what was the point of this? It’s nothing more than amateurish and ineffective mollification.

And now, today, we have seen the White House spokesman go into deer in the headlights mode when asked if enhanced interrogation techniques extracted information that led to bin Laden. Jay Carney managed to try denying without denying, but did tell terrorists still at large that we have no interest in capturing them. Killing them, sure, but not capturing them. If we do capture them, we still plan to play nice with them. But since we will no longer capture and quiz the bad guys, the next bin Laden can rest assured that he is less likely to meet the same fate as the last one.