Disaster-prone President Obama has begun to snatch disaster from the jaws of victory.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that a President who took four years to find his birth certificate should be unable to lay his hands on video or stills of the execution of Osama Bin Laden.
Having spent a decade trying to capture or kill the head of international terrorism and architect of the bloody attacks on New York and Washington, the US intelligence and military organizations can be excused a moment of triumph and celebration on the death of Bin Laden. A clandestine assault deep into a sovereign nation by Special Forces, a gun fight, and either capture or death of the target, is the stuff of adventure movies. Integrated satellite-based command and control systems now allow real-time feed of audio and video from helmet-mounted cameras as the Special Forces attack. Its instant and raw information watched remotely as though the watchers were present at the scene. It should therefore be very simple to release a statement with supporting images that is accurate and timely – but then dithering Obama has never managed simple, accurate, or timely.
US intelligence agencies have been searching for Bin Laden for a decade and come close to locating and catching him on at least four occasions. They have been hampered by rogue elements of the Pakistan intelligence service which appears to have been assisting Bin Laden to evade capture. They have also been hampered but the fact that one man, with or without a small band of supporters, is very difficult to detect even with the latest surveillance equipment in the rugged border area where Bin Laden has been lurking for much of the time. However, the attempts to turn the execution of Bin Laden to political capital by a US president seeking a second term has turned what could have been a major US propaganda coup into a mess that leaves many more questions than it provides answers.
Yesterday, we were treated to film of Obama and Clinton with aides, apparently watching the action unfold on live video displays fed by cameras carried by the Special Forces. The film was intended to show Obama as a courageous Commander in Chief sharing the action with his strike force. It left no doubt that Obama, personally, was closely involved in the operation and fully aware of every stage and consequence. Then we are asked to believe that the screens went blank for 20 minutes or more. That leaves us wondering what Obama and Clinton were watching in awe during that time – was it old episodes of “I Love Lucy” or perhaps Rambo winning the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan single-handed?
The first signs of things going wrong was the statement that Bin Laden “had been captured and killed”. That suggested that he had been disarmed, held as a prisoner and then shot, a simple field execution. In itself that was a perfectly understandable action by the Special Forces of a country that had been brutally attacked at home without warning by a blood-soaked terrorist who had a reputation for being a bullying father and a political fanatic prepared to cause the maximum harm to innocent people. Some who have objected, hoping that Bin Laden should have been brought to trial, but there is a powerful argument in cases of this type for immediate summary execution on capture. If Bin Laden had been held for trial, there would have been massive objections to him being held in the Guanatanamo torture complex and tried by US military tribunal. As an individual and international terrorist, the War Crimes court in the Netherlands does not appear to be capable of trying someone like Bin Laden, simply because he is not part of the regular or irregular forces of a nation engaged in civil war or conflict with another country. If a criminal case was brought against a major terrorist in the US or Pakistan or any other country, there is a risk that the legal system will fail to achieve a conviction and might not be able to award a suitable sentence in the event of conviction. During the period leading to trial and judgment, the terrorist could inspire a series of brutal attacks by supporters aiming to force his release. The clean simple solution is summary execution which might create international condemnation briefly but which would soon fade away because the dead cannot be brought back.
Given these factors, a decisive US President could have simply said “We sought him, we found him, we killed him – justice has been done for the victims of the Bin Laden 9/11 attacks”.
As confusion grew, Obama and his aides started to back track and change the story. What was a simple message became a confused message that will generate a host of conspiracy theories and anger. Even worse, many will come to believe that Bin Laden was not killed and the whole episode was a fabrication.
To justify the killing, it was first claimed that Bin Laden hid behind his wife, who was killed, and he was then shot resisting capture. Then it was admitted that he was not armed, and then we are told that his wife suffered a minor leg wound. Having claimed Bin Laden was resisting capture, Obama has conceded that it was only right to shoot him in self defence, when he could have simply said it was a just killing deliberately undertaken to avenge the 9/11 victims. If Bin Laden was resisting capture but unarmed, lethal force would not have been justified because a number of well-trained and fit US Navy SEALs should have been able to subdue him without the need to shoot.
Result – defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
The burial at sea of the body provides opportunity for conspiracy theorists to claim Bin Laden is not dead. His supporters could make those claims and also claim that they cannot produce him because it would expose him to capture. A very unsatisfactory situation.
As the days pass more confusion may emerge. It appears that Bin Laden was living happily and undisturbed in a garrison town for six years or more. If that is correct, Pakistan intelligence would have had to be seriously incompetent not to know he was there. If they did know, they may have kept quiet and helped hide him, or US intelligence may have been told and decided to do nothing, or to wait until the most appropriate time to act. In some respects, it was more in the US interest to know where he was and use him to expose his organization. It is also in the interest of some government agencies to have a threat like Bin Laden to justify large funding allocations. Whatever the real position, it is unsatisfactory.