I watched the 60 Minutes interview with President Obama last night. While I thought Obama perhaps gave one of his strongest interviews there were several things which jumped out at me.
First, when Steve Kroft asked President Obama if it was his decision to bury Osama bin Laden at sea, he replied, “It was a joint decision.”
A joint decision? With whom? Doesn’t the buck stop with the President?
Obama went on to say his Administration was “consulting with experts in Islamic law and ritual.” But it is one thing for Obama to consult with experts in Islamic law and ritual, it is quite another thing for the President to say that experts in Islamic law and ritual were empowered with executive authority equivalent to the Office of the President of the United States. This also begs the question as to who exactly these experts in Islamic law and ritual are.
Second, when Kroft asked Obama if he didn’t trust the Pakistanis, the President replied, “If I’m not revealing to some of my closest aides what we’re doin’, then I sure as heck am not gonna be revealing it to folks who I don’t know.” (italics mine)
So is President Obama referring to Pakistan’s political leadership or its military? Or both? Whatever the case, it’s not as if Obama hasn’t met with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani much less spoken to them over the phone. Obama might not know Pakistan’s political leadership as intimately as he knows his closest aides but he does have some kind of working relationship with them. So I don’t think President Obama withheld the mission from Pakistan because they were folks he didn’t know but precisely because he did know these folks. The fact that bin Laden was located a stone’s throw away from, as Salman Rushdie put it, “Pakistan’s West Point” illustrates this point. Yet I cannot help but think that if President Bush had given the order he would have been excoriated by the left-wing press for violating Pakistani sovereignty.
Speaking of President Bush I was also struck by Obama’s response to Kroft on past operational failures:
No, I mean you think about Black Hawk Down. You think about what happened with the Iranian rescue. And it, you know, I am very sympathetic to the situation for other Presidents where you make a decision, you’re making your best call, your best shot, and something goes wrong — because these are tough, complicated operations. And yeah, absolutely. The day before I was thinkin’ about this quite a bit.
Obama then went on to say:
(A)s outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did — and I cannot praise them enough they did an extraordinary job with just the slenderest of bits of information to piece this all together — at the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been significant consequences.
Back in October 2009, when President Obama was contemplating whether to increase our troop presence in Afghanistan, he spoke to our troops at the Jacksonville Naval Station and said:
While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this – and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.
Of course, the President of the United States doesn’t have the luxury of always knowing when it is absolutely necessary to act. Not only is the President faced with “a 55/45 situation” he is often faced with situations where he has far fewer facts to work with which nonetheless require him to make a decision that could risk the lives of our military personnel. So when President Obama said he was “sympathetic to the situation for other Presidents” I hope he meant Bush. I hope this means that Obama will cut Bush a little more slack and be more generous towards him about the decisions he had to make with the informaton that was available to him. But this is wishful thinking on my part. Given that we are already into the 2012 campaign season, President Obama will invariably trot out Bush on the campaign trail. The chances of that situation coming to pass is 100%, not 55/45.