The glow of success President Obama is enjoying over the death of bin Laden reminds me of something the dying Patroklos says in the Iliad, when the Trojan Hector has finished him off after the god Apollo stunned him and the Trojan Euphorbos wounded him. As Hector boasts over the dying Greek, Patroklos reminds him, “A destructive fate and Apollo killed me, and of men Euphorbos. You are third to the killing.”
Yes, the praise President Obama is receiving for authorizing the operation that killed Osama bin Laden is deserved––to a point. Considering the political blowback that failure in such an enterprise would have created, Obama should be given his due for not voting “present” or “leading from behind,” as he typically has done when making foreign policy decisions. But these accolades must be tempered by putting them into a fuller context.
First, Obama could make the decision he did only because of policies and practices started by his predecessor, George Bush. The key intelligence that ultimately led to identifying bin Laden’s courier, who in turn led us to bin Laden’s hideout, seems to have come from enhanced interrogation techniques authorized by Bush and incessantly mischaracterized and demonized as “torture.” We suddenly seem to have forgotten the specious arguments of those years, when we were told that “torture never works” or that we would be “just like the terrorists” if we acquired life-saving information by any means other than politely asking suspects in the presence of a lawyer.
More important, it was George Bush’s persistent determination––in the face of vicious attacks on his methods from Democrats and the mainstream media–– to pursue bin Laden and other al Qaeda members wherever they might hide and to hold them accountable that eventually led to the shootout in Abottabad. It was George Bush who understood that the Clinton-era delusion of treating jihadist terror as a criminal matter, or a “nuisance” like prostitution, as John Kerry put it, was dangerous and misguided. Rather, Bush knew that an implacable foe could only be destroyed, and he expressed this in a statement widely criticized and attacked at the time: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out west, that I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’” And that’s exactly how the Obama team approached the operation: not, a la Attorney General Eric Holder, in order to mirandize bin Laden and try him in New York, but to blow his brains out and avenge the deaths of 9/11.
By continuing most of these practices and keeping the same relentless goal of finding and killing bin Laden, then, Obama was able to make the decision for which we all should praise him. But in making that decision he has repudiated most of the criticisms of George Bush that animated his campaign. How does the death of bin Laden square with the following statement, from Obama’s Foreign Affairs article defining him as the “un-Bush”? “To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.” In other words, ending the very same practices that contributed to finding and killing bin Laden, and that have prevented an attack on American soil for nearly a decade.
So by all means let’s give Obama two cheers, but let’s also remember that the Obama who killed bin Laden resembles George Bush more than he resembles the Obama who campaigned for president by vilifying his predecessor. The price of our praise should be Obama’s admission that George Bush was right.