David Frum

04.30.12

Obama's Choice: Bomb Bin Laden or Shoot Him?

An extract from David Corn's Showdown on the Daily Beast site takes us through President Obama's decision-making on last year's bin Laden raid. 

Here's the key bit:

In mid-March 2011, Obama convened a series of National Security Council meetings on a possible bin Laden operation. At the first, on March 14, Panetta presented Obama with the three basic course of action—COAs, in the parlance of military planners—that McRaven and a small team had devised: a massive bombing strike in which B-2 stealth bombers would drop dozens of 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs and obliterate the compound; a helicopter raid mounted by U.S. commandos; or a joint assault with Pakistani forces, who would be informed of the operation only shortly before its launch. According to a participant, the president had “a visceral reaction” against the bombing strike because collateral damage would likely extend beyond the compound into the surrounding neighborhood. The CIA had already determined that the compound contained a number of women and children.

Another drawback of such an attack was that it would leave behind only rubble—and the remains of 20 or so people mixed in with the concrete and steel. In all that wreckage, could they find a piece of bin Laden—hair or flesh—for DNA analysis?

“The question was, would you accrue the strategic benefits of getting bin Laden if you couldn’t prove it?” Ben Rhodes, a national security aide, recalled.

“And what could be worse,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the White House senior director for counterterrorism, later noted, “than OBL survives and comes out and says, ‘The United States failed to kill me’?”

Obama all but scratched this option off the list. 

When people talk about the risk to the Obama presidency in the bin Laden mission, they tend to reduce the president's options to "go" vs "no go." 

The true decision, though, was between a stand-off bombing and the human raid. That choice was a devilish one. The SEAL raid could have gone wrong in many more—and many worse—ways than a bombing run. The SEAL choice was the hard one. Obama can claim credit for its success, not because he planned the raid, but because he would have had to wear the blame if the raid had failed.