Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
Victory: Two Presidents, Two Parties, One Dead Terrorist
Yet I cannot help but feel there was a small missed opportunity here. Obama has made an art form out of avoiding giving President Bush credit. He has not shared the praise with Bush as he completed the drawdown of forces from Iraq that Bush initiated, or carried forward the surge in Afghanistan that Bush had planned, or perpetuated many of the Bush administration policies he once deplored from the campaign trail. Bush himself was characteristically gracious, "congratulating" Obama and the military on this "momentous achievement." But by emphasizing himself as the only decider in the narrative that led to bin Laden's death, Obama is something less of a uniter than he might have been. He might have raised the issue above the toxic swamp of political manipulation it is sure to sink into.
The point is not to nitpick President Obama on a day when he is rightly praised for his effective and historic actions as commander-in-chief. The point is, if we fall into credit-claiming and blame-casting too quickly, we will miss out on a more positive message here. Americans should be encouraged that their government can still work together across the aisles and across presidential administrations to achieve something of extraordinary difficulty and significance. And perhaps they can exercise the grace to acknowledge and applaud that this was truly a bipartisan, multi-administration accomplishment.
The overarching narrative that led to Osama bin Laden's capture began—if it did not begin earlier—with the forceful, aggressive, offensive response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attack. When Bush made clear that those who harbor terrorist networks would share their fate, he eliminated many safe havens bin Laden might have found around the world. When Bush led the military to topple the Taliban, and kept the pressure on al Qaeda through surveillance and drones and special forces, this cut bin Laden off from the organization he ostensibly led. Bush determined that this would be a military and not a law-enforcement matter, and it was indeed the military that captured bin Laden. And when al Qaeda committed itself fully to the war in Iraq, and was decisively defeated by the surge, this constituted a massive blow to al Qaeda's reputation and morale, not to mention killing hundreds of their most committed jihadists.
Even the specific intelligence thread that led to bin Laden's capture spans across the Bush and Obama administrations. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was captured in 2003, Abu Faraj al-Libbi in 2005, and many more were taken from the battlefields of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Through their interrogations, American intelligence learned of a particular courier (a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and a trusted assistant to al-Libbi) who was highly likely to be found with bin Laden. In 2007, officials learned the details of his identity; in 2009 they learned the general area in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated; and in August 2010 they found the peculiar compound where three families lived, families that fit the profile for the two brothers and bin Laden himself. In September of 2010 the Obama administration began a series of assessments that increased their confidence that bin Laden was indeed inside the compound, and in February 2011 they began to develop military options. From March 14th to April 28th, President Obama chaired five National Security Council meetings specifically devoted to this operation.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.