In the days following Osama bin Laden's death, a debate broke out over who deserves more credit: President Obama or George W. Bush. Some on the right couldn't even bring themselves to utter a single complimentary word about Obama's major success, and polling showed that a majority of Republicans believe Bush should get more credit than Obama.
More sober voices in the Republican Party like John McCain and even Dick Cheney (!) were extremely gracious towards Obama, and many on the right have argued that debating who gets bragging rights shouldn't even be part of the story. But they're wrong.
Ultimately, it shouldn't really matter which president gets the political accolades for getting bin Laden, but it's important that the right policies do get credit, so we don't repeat the foreign-policy and intelligence blunders of the Bush years.
Some of the details surrounding the bin Laden operation remain a bit murky and others may never be made public, but there are certain pieces of the decade-long man-hunt and Bush's “War on Terror” that the country should remember.
First, Sept. 11 happened on Bush's watch. Blaming him is unfair, but this was a profound intelligence failure and a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration. A few weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, the president was briefed by the CIA that bin Laden was “determined to strike” in the U.S., and separate intelligence suggested that al-Qaida was specifically looking into using hijacked airplanes as missiles. The hijackers, some of whom were on the FBI watch list, learned how to fly in American flight schools and they boarded their flights on Sept. 11 with their real passports. One can only imagine how Republicans would have reacted to these breakdowns in security if they occurred on Obama's watch.
Second, in December 2001, U.S. intelligence officials believed bin Laden to be hiding in Tora Bora and strongly argued that overwhelming force should be used to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader. But those requests went ignored by the White House, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks who headed the Afghan mission. The operation was botched and bin Laden escaped to Pakistan.
The following year, as Congress debated whether or not to invade Iraq, one of the most compelling arguments opponents made was that a redirection of forces to a country that had no link to al-Qaida or Sept. 11, and posed no credible threat to the U.S., would take our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When Obama campaigned for president in 2008, having opposed the Iraq War for those very reasons, he repeatedly insisted that the true focus should be in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was even mocked by Hillary Clinton and John McCain when he vowed that as President he would send troops into Pakistan and take out bin Laden if he had actionable intelligence. Once in office, Obama instructed CIA Director Leon Panetta to focus like a laser beam on bin Laden and his associates in Pakistan, and his administration has been aggressive and effective in killing al-Qaida's leadership with drone strikes.
Finally, the call to order a covert ground strike in Pakistan was not an obvious decision and required extraordinary leadership. It could have gone very badly. Pakistan is an ally, and relations are frayed, and the intel was pretty dicey, with officials saying they were only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden was even there. What Obama showed was that in the battle against violent extremism, a commander-in-chief with a scalpel and a steady hand is more effective than the previous administration's approach of crudely stomping around like a pack of marauding Huns.
Why it Matters Who Gets Credit For the Osama Bin Laden Killing
What was needed most was a scalpel and a steady hand.