This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Peter Bergen, author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad,” spoke to Yahoo News about Obama’s defining moment of presidential leadership: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
When Obama came into office in early 2009, there wasn’t much information about where bin Laden might be.
They knew that there was a courier called al-Kuwaiti, who seemed to play some sort of role in al-Qaida that was important. Eventually they followed him to a city called Abbottabad, where he went to a compound where the people are going out of their way to keep a low profile while lying about who they are. Not super-unusual for the area, but unusual enough that Leon Panetta, who was then the director of the CIA, went to President Obama and said, “We think we have a pretty good lead.”
There had been false leads in the past. It was 50/50 if bin Laden was in this compound. The option that became more and more interesting to Obama and his team was a SEAL team raid on the compound. It would be a covert operation under the direction of the CIA. The United States wasn’t going to give the Pakistanis a heads-up about it. It would be covert, deniable, secret.
Obama didn’t make up his mind definitively until very late. He went around his war cabinet and asked them all to give their opinions. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said essentially, “Don’t do the strike. There are too many risks here.” Gates, don’t forget, had been in the White House when President Carter ordered the disastrous Iran rescue operation. And every time there was a meeting he’d remind Obama that another Democratic president had mounted a special operation in a country a long way away. In the end, that had contributed to Carter becoming a one-term president.
Vice President Joe Biden also said, “Don’t do this operation. We’re going to anger the Pakistanis.”
Hillary Clinton came down [in favor] in the end. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was in favor. Admiral McRaven, who was going to actually [be in command] assured President Obama from a military point of view this was going to be like any other military operation that joint special operations command does every night in Afghanistan or Iraq. He inspired great confidence in everybody in the room.
Obama went back to his residence, thought about it and came down at 8 the next morning and told his top national security advisers, “Go!”
I think this is a classic example of presidential leadership. He had plenty of his advisers saying “Don’t do this.” But that’s the nature of real presidential decision-making — you don’t have all the answers. It was easy to say after bin Laden was killed that that’s the decision I would have made. That’s supereasy to make that claim after you know the outcome. We know what history looks like looking backward, but it’s lived forward. You have to make a decision.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Barack Obama after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden, 2011. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Pete Souza/The White House/AP)