Recently President Obama has come under fire from both the left and the right for politicizing the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, including a major campaign advertisement a speech from Afghanistan timed to the anniversary of the raid, and a campaign press-blitz intended to cement the decision as a ‘gutsy call.’ In the words of the campaign ad: “suppose the [SEALs] had been … killed, the downside would have been horrible for him.” Yes indeed, when American servicemen are killed, the political fallout is just awful.
It was initially believed that the politicization of the raid began after it was successfully carried out. However, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey revealed that a recently disclosed memo from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta had a built-in political insurance policy should the raid have failed: the blame would be shifted to Admiral William McRaven, then-Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. According to the memo, “The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President … The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out.” In other words, if the mission failed, it would be because Admiral McRaven failed to correctly oversee the mission. This shift-the-blame political insurance policy is sadly illustrative of the extent that the raid has been politicized, even prior to its execution.
President Harry Truman famously adorned his desk with a sign which read “The Buck Stops Here.” It was a simple statement intended to highlight the fact that regardless of outcome, good or bad, the President is responsible for events that take place under his watch. Bush took responsibility for Katrina, Reagan took responsibility for the Iran-Contra Affair, and it would seem to make sense that Obama would have taken responsibility for the raid had it failed. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the case.
There is nothing wrong with pointing to a policy accomplishment in a political campaign, but the unfortunate truth about the Bin Laden raid is that this historic mission by some of America’s bravest men and women was politicized to a disturbingly high degree. Indeed, the president’s post-raid press conference sounded like a promotional video. In the first few sentences detailing the raid, the President mentioned “I,”, “me”, or “my” a total of nine times, all in reference to his decision making. This was a stark contrast to historical precedent — presidents Washington, Lincoln, Polk, Wilson, Truman, Reagan, and both Bush’s gave speeches following major wartime decisions, and in all such speeches the President was barely mentioned, if at all. The main subjects of those speeches were the sacrifices of the brave men and women and the causes for which they valiantly defended the United States. In President Bush’s speech after the capture of Saddam Hussein, the term “I” was only mentioned in the context of “[thanking] the members of our military and congratulating them.”
When given a chance recently to respond to the criticism directed against him, President Obama stayed the course, insisting that “I said that I’d go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did.”
The problem is not that the raid has been politicized, it’s the degree to which it was. President Obama should be congratulated on this accomplishment, but in the future it would do him well to spend less time focusing on the political angle of a decision and more on the decision itself, and those who ultimately carry it out.