Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Goodbye and good riddance to Bin Laden…and Iraq? The best and worst of 2011

The administration’s most important success in 2011?  I’ll go with the obvious: the Seal Team 6 takedown of bin Laden.  Never discount the vital national interest in visiting harsh justice upon those who mastermind mass slaughter on the American homeland — even 10 years delayed.  The victims and their families deserved it.  The country yearned ...

By , a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images

The administration's most important success in 2011?  I'll go with the obvious: the Seal Team 6 takedown of bin Laden.  Never discount the vital national interest in visiting harsh justice upon those who mastermind mass slaughter on the American homeland -- even 10 years delayed.  The victims and their families deserved it.  The country yearned for it.  And the rest of the world needed a stark reminder that no matter how much time passes, no matter how far they run, the long arm of American retaliation will eventually reach out and touch those who opt to wage war against the United States.  Republican or Democrat in the White House, it makes no difference.  The message is the same, always the same:  Don't tread on me.

It was the president's finest hour.  His least charitable critics will demur.  In retrospect, they argue, he had to take the shot.  To have passed it up would have subjected him to intense criticism and ridicule.  A political catastrophe that would have sunk his presidency. 

Perhaps.  And yet.  The risks of giving the "go" order were substantial too.  The odds that bin Laden was not actually in the compound may have been as high as 50 percent. Several of the president's most senior advisors argued against the operation.  The potential geopolitical ramifications of a stealth raid deep inside Pakistan, the world's fastest growing nuclear weapons state and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, weighed heavy.  As did the political and strategic costs of failure.  Images of the carnage at Desert One in Iran, and of Mogadishu's Black Hawk Down, could not but have haunted Obama's thoughts.  And still he went.  A quintessential presidential decision.  Lonely.  Courageous.  Necessary.  Good on him.

The administration’s most important success in 2011?  I’ll go with the obvious: the Seal Team 6 takedown of bin Laden.  Never discount the vital national interest in visiting harsh justice upon those who mastermind mass slaughter on the American homeland — even 10 years delayed.  The victims and their families deserved it.  The country yearned for it.  And the rest of the world needed a stark reminder that no matter how much time passes, no matter how far they run, the long arm of American retaliation will eventually reach out and touch those who opt to wage war against the United States.  Republican or Democrat in the White House, it makes no difference.  The message is the same, always the same:  Don’t tread on me.

It was the president’s finest hour.  His least charitable critics will demur.  In retrospect, they argue, he had to take the shot.  To have passed it up would have subjected him to intense criticism and ridicule.  A political catastrophe that would have sunk his presidency. 

Perhaps.  And yet.  The risks of giving the "go" order were substantial too.  The odds that bin Laden was not actually in the compound may have been as high as 50 percent. Several of the president’s most senior advisors argued against the operation.  The potential geopolitical ramifications of a stealth raid deep inside Pakistan, the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons state and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, weighed heavy.  As did the political and strategic costs of failure.  Images of the carnage at Desert One in Iran, and of Mogadishu’s Black Hawk Down, could not but have haunted Obama’s thoughts.  And still he went.  A quintessential presidential decision.  Lonely.  Courageous.  Necessary.  Good on him.

The bin Laden hit was part of a larger pattern of counter-terrorism successes that rightly should inure to the administration’s credit.  Add to it the president’s call to serve as judge, jury and executioner of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on a remote highway in northern Yemen — constitutional niceties and the qualms of Obama’s liberal base be damned.  And more generally, the ten-fold escalation in drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan that unquestionably have wreaked havoc on the organization’s capabilities and morale.  Yes, the threat we face from bin Laden’s evil spawn remains.  But the president has combatted it well, with a steeliness of spine, a quotient of ice in the veins, that deserves respect and appreciation.  His administration has kept the nation safe from further terrorist attack, despite the best efforts of a vicious and implacable foe.

As for the most important thing the administration got wrong in 2011?  Perhaps too predictably, I’ll venture Iraq.  I don’t believe the president ever really had the intention of maintaining a significant American military presence there.  Deep in his bones, he long ago resolved that the war was a huge blunder, a blot on America’s moral character and a dangerous distraction from the real threats and challenges facing the nation. No amount of progress on the ground could convince him otherwise, or wash clean the stain of the war’s original sin in his eyes.  Obama’s mission from the get-go was to put Iraq into the nation’s rear-view mirror, a goal from which he never really wavered.  The trick was to do it in a way that didn’t immediately sacrifice all the hard-fought gains of Bush’s surge, to create the prospect of a "decent interval" that would limit the potential for political blowback.

To placate those — especially among the military’s top brass — who saw the strategic sense in consolidating a long-term partnership, the president authorized, albeit belatedly, negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence.  But his heart was never in it.  As had been the case from the beginning of his term when it came to les affaires d’Irak, the president’s involvement in the effort to get to "yes" was notable only for its absence. Anyone who’d ever spent any time working Iraq policy post-2003 could have told you from the start: A negotiation structured to limit the president’s personal engagement in the muck and the mire of shepherding a deal through was in fact a negotiation structured to fail. And so it did.

Iraqi leaders certainly sniffed out long ago that Obama viewed them as the bastard step-children of Bush’s failed policies, whom he hoped to kick to the curb at the first available opportunity.  They knew he had no intention of ever taking any real risks for them.  Predictably enough, when it came to the thorny issue of immunity for U.S. troops, they weren’t about to take any for him either. 

Obama never bought into the arguments that the Iraq play was worth the candle:  The chance to help consolidate a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy in the heart of the Middle East.  To maintain a long-term U.S. troop presence on the borders of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey.  To help fortify Najaf, home to a quietist school of Shia Islam that hangs like a theological sword of Damocles over the radicalism of Khomeini’s Iran. To build a strategic partnership with a country of 30 million people, which by dint of history, geography, culture, and oil wealth is destined to exert an inordinate influence on the future of one of the world’s most volatile and vital regions.   

In short, the most full-throated version of the argument went, what a long-term U.S. troop presence had done to help turn Germany, Japan, and Korea into major strategic assets of the United States, the democratic powerhouses of Europe and Asia, it could also do in Iraq and the broader Middle East.  Withdrawing all U.S. forces from any of those countries after only 8 years would have been to run intolerable risks. The same logic surely applied to Iraq — especially now that the U.S. presence could be sustained at dramatically reduced cost in blood and treasure.

Yet Obama would have none of it. Not even the immediate shadow of a fanatical Iranian regime on the verge of nuclear weapons, rapaciously eyeing Iraq’s spoils from its perch next door, could sway him from his course.  On the contrary, his announcement of the U.S. withdrawal followed by just days the revelation of an Iranian plot to explode a large truck bomb in downtown Washington. A conspiracy to commit mass murder on American shores met by military retreat from Iran’s borders.  Unfair?  Of course.  But an accurate portrayal of how events are perceived in the Middle East?  For sure.  

Along these lines, the Iraq decision was not without broader context.  Unfortunately, it was far too much of a piece with a broader narrative that, fairly or not, has increasingly taken hold across the Middle East — one that sees the United States in steep decline, lacking strategic vision, a willing accomplice in the unravelling of a pax Americana that for all its shortcomings has underwritten the region’s security for decades. 

For a Middle East already already wracked by popular upheavals, violent crackdowns, rising Islamism, and the threat of an expansionist Iranian theocracy bent on acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons, the perception of America in retreat, a weak and unreliable partner, only adds fuel to an already dangerously combustible mix.  The resulting uncertainty, fear and strategic vacuum seem a sure-fire formula for future miscalculation and conflict.  The administration would be well advised to take notice of the dangers that flow.  Reversing the corrosive and destabilizing narrative will not be easy — especially in the wake of the flight from Iraq.  But allowing it to metastasize even further could be far riskier still.   

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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