Abbottabad Politics

By Mike Dorf

In response to the Romney campaign's faux-outrage at the Obama campaign's suggestion that Romney might not have ordered the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the President's defenders have emphasized three main points.

(1) It's true.  In 2007, Romney in fact said "it's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."  Thus we can presume that had Romney been President, he would not have redirected resources, as Obama did, to tracking bin Laden.  Perhaps Romney would have ordered the Abbottabad raid if he were presented with the same intelligence that Obama received in 2011, but a President Romney never would have gotten that intelligence, because he wouldn't have ordered the massive manhunt in the first place.

(2) Are you on crack?  That's the question posed by Jon Stewart to Republicans who accused the Obama Administration of politicizing a military response to 9/11, in light of, you know, nearly everything that happened under President Bush.

(3) Jimmy Who?  Romney has said that "even Jimmy Carter" would have ordered the raid on Abbottabad.  As James Fallows noted in The Atlantic, that line was grossly unfair to Carter, but it was also false even accepting Romney's borderline defamatory premise that Carter was a wuss.  Romney was implying that Obama was taking credit for what he was portraying as a tough choice, when in fact he made an easy choice.  Yet as Peter Bergen notes in his new book Manhunt (reviewed here), the evidence that bin Laden was in fact in the Abbottabad compound was hardly overwhelming, and was seen by one key insider as less conclusive than the pre-Iraq War evidence that Saddam Hussein had WMDs.  Moreover, the operation Obama ordered was quite risky.  Accordingly, Obama's defenders say, the President made a gutsy call in ordering the raid.  Even VP Biden apparently wouldn't have made the same call.  Thus, in this view, Obama is entitled to take credit for the successful outcome.

What to make of all of this?  With respect to (1), Romney's 2007 statement looks very much like the sardonic definition of a gaffe--i.e., an impolitic truth spoken by a politician.  Obama's decision to target bin Laden was necessarily a decision to use resources for that purpose rather than some other purpose.  He could have spent those billions and risked the same lives for some other military purpose, for example.  Moreover, we will probably never know whether killing bin Laden was on net beneficial.  The most trenchant question of the post-9/11 age remains the one that Donald Rumsfeld asked in his "snowflake": Whether we are killing more terrorists than we are inspiring.  The same question can be asked about the killing of bin Laden.

As to point 2, of course Stewart is right that Republicans complaining about Obama's politicization of the bin Laden mission are ginormous hypocrites, but it's also true that Democrats who thought that Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and other Republicans unfairly politicized 9/11, should be uneasy about the Obama campaign's clear politicization of the bin Laden killing.  Even if one doesn't have ethical qualms, the Obama-killed-Osama ad is bad politics in the same way that nearly everything that Mitt Romney says is bad politics: Because it's too obvious.  The best way to score political points is by appearing not to be trying to do so.

Finally, point 3 raises an interesting question about how to evaluate decision making.  Let's suppose that the best intelligence available ex ante indicated that there was a 50% chance that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound and also a 50% chance that the mission would succeed in killing or capturing bin Laden without substantial loss of American lives or a battle with Pakistani forces.  Should we evaluate the mission ex ante or ex post?  The Obama campaign seems to want to say that Obama should get credit for making a risky decision that paid off.  But this strikes me as peculiar logic, because if credited, it means that the more reckless the decision was, the more credit Obama should get if it worked out okay.  So if the ex ante odds of success were on the order of 1%, then Obama would be a much bigger hero for having made a crazy-risky decision that turned out well?  That's nuts.

In truth, I suspect that Obama's people are trying to make two points that are in tension with one another: 1) that Obama showed tactical smarts by evaluating the evidence more accurately than some of his top advisers and confidantes; and 2) that Obama showed courage by taking a risk.  But the smarter Obama was in seeing the ex ante odds of success as good, the less risky it was to order the raid.  To be clear, I'm not making this point as a criticism of the decision itself.  I just think the messaging is a bit unclear on whether we should be thankful to the President that he is a gambler or whether we should be thankful that he is a keen analyst of data that others find ambiguous.