Perhaps one of the most frequent criticisms leveled at President Obama is that he is too academic a president and too studious a scholar. Some suggest that his behavior is too much like a lawyer’s that he juggles things on the search for a different angle. The successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound may do much to set some of this criticism to rest.
To begin with, one the most important rewards that will emerge from the killing of bin Laden will be its dissection by students of U.S. foreign policy decision-making. In the almost 50 years since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, there has not been a single set of circumstances that has the potential to teach U.S. foreign policy makers about decision making as does the attack on bin Laden in Pakistan.
For scholars, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been the paradigm of what can and should be studied about presidential decision-making in times of crisis. Until now, President Kennedy’s successful maneuvering to get the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba has been the standard against which all U.S. foreign policy episodes have been held. The process President Obama used to arrive at his decision to attack bin Laden’s compound already appears to have provided important new lessons in decision-making, many of them fact outgrowths of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Historians and political scientists of the Cold War agree that the Kennedy administration taught decision-makers a number of lessons on how to deal with such threats. President Kennedy created the Executive Committee and then gave the Soviets some room to maneuver. He presented Khrushchev with options and time. The president let his advisers meet without him in the room to minimize the problem of group-think. Finally, Kennedy gave the Soviets a deal — the already planned-for withdrawal of U.S. bases from Turkey — that allowed them to save a bit of face.
In the case of the attack on the bin Laden compound, what are some of the lessons to be gleaned from the White House’s conduct of the raid?
• Make sure that your goal is clear. In this case: eliminate Osama bin Laden, if not alive, then dead.
• Never minimize the training. Wait until you are absolutely sure your forces are ready and never allow for excessive bravado to replace readiness.
• Never short-change your operatives. Have enough support forces to extricate your team if necessary (unlike President Jimmy Carter’s fiasco at Desert One in Iran in 1979).
• Share information with as few outside the decision-making circle as possible. If it works, few will really complain except for those with sour grapes; if it fails no one will admit they were adequately consulted anyway.
• When in doubt keep it secret, even from presumed allies. The Pakistani intelligence services needed to be kept in the dark if there was a scintilla of a possibility that they might leak the plan. Succeed and let them complain.
• Do not minimize the consequences of failure. The president needed to weigh the potential consequences in retaliation against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan against the value of a successful mission. He needed to fully understand that the intelligence might be wrong. Even if President Obama also assumed his re-election is a shoo-in given the absence (18 months out) of any major Republican opponent, he needed to understand that one more policy failure or perceived weakness in foreign policy might have been all the opposition would have needed to galvanize its forces behind a viable opponent.
• Be sensitive to the victim’s followers or fellow travelers. The decision to give bin Laden a prompt and appropriate burial at sea eliminated charges of religious or ethnic arrogance or charges of embarrassment.
• Ensure that you have total spin control. Despite the fact that there were multiple versions and details that emerged after the attack, the White House maintained control of the information flow — even when there were contradictions and corrections.
• Do not rest on your laurels. Move on and let history tell the story. If the fit is good, it will flow, if not, you do not want to be caught falling all over yourself.
• Demand absolute team loyalty. No one can escape from the reservation. Anyone involved in the decision making will get both the credit and/or the embarrassment. There is no place for whiners.
It remains to be seen how history will treat the U.S. strike against this source of terrorism which had humiliated and frightened Americans since before 9/11. It is also much too early to determine what the long-term effects, if any, this action will have on world-wide terrorist activity.
The Arab world is in clear turmoil. Many fear that there are radical elements that will employ terrorist activity against the United States, other Western countries, or even Israel, if for no other reason than to distract democratic and reforming forces from their goal. All of that may be true, but, hopefully, future U.S. decision-makers will learn some operational lessons that certainly appear to have served the Obama administration well.