The echoes were unmistakable. On April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent eight helicopters to rescue the 52 Americans held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. One crashed en route; one turned back; one malfunctioned. Spooked, Carter decided to cut his losses and abort the mission—but not before one of the remaining choppers sliced into a transport plane, igniting a blaze that killed eight servicemen. Carter’s presidency never recovered.
For a brief, anxious moment, President Obama’s national-security team, gathered in the West Wing on May 1, suffered a sickening sense of déjà vu. As the helicopter carrying a team of Navy SEALs dipped behind the high concrete walls of Osama bin Laden’s headquarters in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it sputtered, then stalled. The moment was “indescribably tense,” a White House official tells NEWSWEEK—not only for the soldiers, who were about to enter enemy territory without a clear exit strategy, but for President Obama himself, who had ordered up the risky mission, forgoing safer options. The entire Situation Room was thinking the same thing: is this Iran all over again?
By now, the whole world knows it wasn’t; the commandos landed and got their man. It was a stunning success that will likely end the comparisons to the Georgia Democrat that conservatives have been leveling at Obama since 2008, when they first started calling him a “Carteresque rerun” (The Washington Times) who is “tough on America’s allies and soft on its enemies” (National Review). The question now, however, is whether “one of the…gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory,” as U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan characterized the mission, will help Obama avoid Carter’s larger fate as well: a one-term presidency that petered out when a tough-talking Republican insurgent convinced voters that their commander in chief was too weak to lead.
The early evidence suggests that bin Laden’s death is improving public opinion of Obama. A NEWSWEEK/DAILY BEAST survey found no immediate bump, but other polls have him on the upswing. And the president’s numbers were likely to rise further after his scheduled May 5 appearance at Ground Zero—a reprise of the bullhorn address that united the country behind George W. Bush in the days after the towers fell. But ultimately, Abbottabad alone cannot create a renewed sense of purpose among Americans or ensure Obama’s reelection. In a week or two, voters will go back to fretting about unemployment and the national debt. For that reason, bin Laden’s demise is best understood as an opportunity for Obama—an opportunity to regain control of the national conversation, strengthen his hand in preparation for 2012, and bring the country together. If he seizes it, and if a new terrorist attack doesn’t change the game yet again, the Abbottabad raid could become the defining moment of his presidency. “Throughout history there have been pivot points for presidents, from Truman’s Berlin Airlift in 1948 to Bush after 9/11,” says historian Douglas Brinkley. “Americans have always liked Obama, but they never knew whether he was a real commander in chief. Now they do.”
In order to understand Obama’s new opportunity, it’s important to trace his national-security mindset back to its origins. Despite his idealistic rhetoric, Obama had evolved into a hardheaded realist by the time he ran for president in 2008. In the years before and after 9/11, he forged a coherent set of views about the roots of Islamic rage and the economic and social conditions that breed violent extremism. But as he said in his famous 2002 speech opposing the war in Iraq, he was not against war in general—only “dumb” wars that did not advance clear American interests.
Richard Clarke, who was George W. Bush’s counterterrorism chief on 9/11 and who’d been advising Obama since mid-2007, knew that his new boss’s intellectual rigor was an enormous asset. And yet he also knew that the slash-and-burn politics of a presidential campaign would not be friendly to Obama’s measured mien, and that he would need a thick layer of political insulation to shield him from the inevitable attacks on his commitment to combating terrorism. The challenge was to blend the candidate’s notions of soft power and hard power into a new paradigm for the war on terrorism—an approach that could be framed as tough but smart.
Obama decided to reveal how he would fight Al Qaeda in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, 2007. Clarke and Rand Beers, a counterterrorism expert with three decades of experience in Democratic and Republican administrations, met with Obama to outline his political objectives. First, he had to get out in front of any terrorist strike that might occur during the campaign. Clarke, who runs a global-security consulting firm, was regularly tapping his network of spook and counterterror sources to measure the threat environment. He believed the odds of an attack were high and potentially catastrophic to Obama’s campaign. “We told him quite explicitly to get on the record putting the blame on the past administration,” Clarke tells NEWSWEEK. “We wanted him to show causality between what the Bush administration did and the continuing terrorism threat.” Second, Obama had to show he was willing to use force, prudently but confidently. Obama understood the need to project strength, and he embraced it. At the same time, he argued that a strategy that relied solely on kills and captures would produce Pyrrhic victories. His goal, he told the audience, was to “dry up the rising well of support for extremism.” He pledged billions in aid for poverty reduction and education to counter the radical madrassas.
But beneath its softer talk of values and economic empowerment, Obama’s speech was shot through with steel. Near the halfway point, the senator, his voice rising, accused the Bush administration of fecklessness in the fight against terrorists—and vowed, in a rare display of machismo, that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf won’t act, we will.” In early 2005 Bush had planned a daring “snatch and grab” operation in North Waziristan aimed at capturing Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others. But at the last minute Donald Rumsfeld aborted the raid, in part because Bush didn’t want to ruffle feathers in Islamabad.
And yet Obama was now promising unilateral military action inside Pakistan, where perceived violations of national sovereignty, however slight, could inflame public opinion and bolster extremists. At first it seemed like a page ripped from the Bush-Rumsfeld playbook: the U.S. would ignore the hand-wringing diplomats and take the fight directly to the terrorists. But Obama was not merely attempting to out-Bush Bush. He had come to understand that Pakistan was the heart of the problem—an untrustworthy regime that was undercutting America’s ability to defeat its enemies. It was not enough, Obama said, to recommit the U.S. to the war in Afghanistan; it was also time to get tough with Pakistan by pressuring it to go after local terrorist safe havens.
As his advisers predicted, Obama took a short-term political hit for supporting a policy with the potential to destabilize Pakistan. “He basically threatened to bomb [them],” Hillary Clinton said during a debate in Cleveland, “which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take.” Joe Biden called Obama’s plan “a very naive way of figuring out how you’re going to conduct foreign policy.” John McCain would later echo the Democratic line of attack, accusing Obama of wanting to “invade” Pakistan. But almost exactly one year after the Wilson Center speech, Bush started to do exactly what Obama had proposed. Frustrated by Pakistani duplicity, Bush ordered the CIA to stop giving Islamabad advance notice of drone strikes; all it deserved, he said, was a heads-up after the missiles had already been launched.
At the Wilson Center, Obama was clearly trying to show voters that he was tough enough to lead the war on terrorism. But from his first days as president, Obama has sought to strike a pragmatic, hyperrational balance between caution and aggression. Early on, he added 17,000 troops in Afghanistan, then led a long, and much criticized, strategy review—only to double down on his initial decision. On Jan. 22, 2009, Obama issued key soft-power executive orders banning torture, shutting down CIA black sites, and demanding the closure of Guantánamo. Hours later, he was authorizing his first drone strikes in Pakistan—a program he has escalated dramatically while in office. Asked whether the president has struggled with the moral implications of remote-controlled death, a senior intelligence official tells NEWSWEEK, “Not at all. He has no qualms.”
While Obama has tempered Bush’s macho rhetoric, he has also expanded Special Ops, especially in “denied areas” like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and shown a willingness to use “kinetic force” even when safer options are available. In September 2009, Obama signed off on a raid in Somalia that took out a top Qaeda leader. After much deliberation, he bypassed a plan to launch offshore missiles and selected a riskier strategy instead: choppers swooped in, obliterated the terrorist’s car, and briefly landed to collect DNA. It was perfect example of the president’s approach—and a preview of what was to come in Abbottabad.
Now the political repercussions of that mission have the power to reshape Obama’s presidency. The most obvious effect of Abbottabad is that it vindicates the president’s approach to the war on terrorism, and removes from the Republican arsenal the argument that he is a weak, naive, bumbling humanitarian. It is difficult to imagine the 2012 contenders questioning Obama’s commander-in-chief chops, as Republicans have done to Democrats for decades, and were hoping to do again. Why? Because that particular line of inquiry now gives the president a priceless opportunity to remind voters that he accomplished in two years what George W. Bush was unable to accomplish in eight. As rebuttals go, it’s a good one.
Less obvious is the fact that Abbottabad might also vindicate Obama’s broader approach to presidential leadership, which has always emphasized calculating, technocratic, goal-oriented tenacity over “Mission Accomplished” theatrics. The problem with the Obama-Carter comparisons, which have been regurgitated by 2012 hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty in recent months, is that they overlook the real-world results of Obama’s supposedly knock-kneed management: universal health care, Wall Street reform, a depression-averting stimulus package, the end of the Iraq War, and now, bin Laden’s head. As much as Pawlenty & Co. might disagree with Obama’s policies, it’s hard to deny that the president has a knack for getting (most of) what he wants. Swing voters pay little attention to politics, so they’re unlikely to warm to the president’s cool approach by themselves. But they will appreciate, and remember, that he killed bin Laden. The more Obama reminds independents that Abbottabad was a direct result of his leadership style, and not a lucky break, the easier it will be for him to sell the rest of his record. “The way Obama made this decision was very similar to way he makes domestic decisions,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “Gathering the info, talking it out, then making the most rational call.”
For Obama, the other major benefit of bin Laden’s death is that it alters the political climate in ways that may help him enhance his résumé in the months ahead. If Republicans are forced to check their mudslinging reflex for a few weeks, Obama could steer the national conversation away from Donald Trump and back to his “balanced” deficit plan. He would, in turn, enter the upcoming debt-ceiling negotiations having defined the debate on his terms, and with more political capital than anyone else at the table. With bin Laden dead, Obama could argue that America has accomplished what it set out to accomplish in Afghanistan, and that the time has come to draw down. Presidents are rarely punished at the ballot box for “winning” a war. Abbottabad may also give Obama a chance, ahead of his summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this month, to “ride the temporary wave of support and drag Netanyahu into serious negotiations with the Palestinians,” as Haaretz, a Tel Aviv paper, reported on May 3. At the very least, timing is on the president’s side: early May is when several prominent Republicans promised to declare their 2012 intentions. Obama’s post-Abbottabad halo may discourage the more reluctant hopefuls from entering the race.
While the potential political benefits of killing bin Laden go beyond a quick bump in the polls, Obama would be wise to remember that he still faces long-term risks. At roughly the same point in his tenure, George H.W. Bush was celebrating an even larger overseas triumph: victory in the Persian Gulf. As a result, Bush’s approval rating soared to 89 percent, and pundits predicted that he would rout his rivals in 1992. But then, as now, the country was just beginning to recover from a recession, and unemployment remained high. Assisted by constant attacks from Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, voters sensed that Bush wasn’t engaged on the economy—he once confessed that foreign affairs were more “fun”—and the conquering hero gradually became the disconnected WASP.
The most important thing Obama can do after his own bullhorn moment, for the country and for himself, is what neither Bush nor his son managed to do after theirs: persuade the American people to approach their thorniest problems—structural unemployment and long-term debt—with the same patient, no-drama diligence that led him to bin Laden. The day after Abbottabad, during a bipartisan congressional dinner in the East Room of the White House, Obama delivered a set of brief, impromptu remarks that outlined the opportunity at hand. “Last night…we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” he said. “And so tonight, it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face.” Doing so would be far more impressive than killing a terrorist. It would be the kind of accomplishment that transforms a promising president into a great one.
Klaidman, a former NEWSWEEK managing editor, is writing a book on President Obama and terrorism to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
Daniel Stone contributed to this report.