Was the bin Laden Raid Really ‘Not a Tough Decision’?

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On Wednesday, Donald Rumsfeld joined the bin Laden-anniversary party by declaring that it was “not a tough decision” for Barack Obama to order the Navy Seal raid in Abbottabad, and that to decide otherwise would be “dumbfounding.” Set aside for a moment the fact that a guy as tough as Rumsfeld’s successor as Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, opposed launching the raid. As the NYT‘s Peter Baker notes, Democrats are reminding people of a somewhat similar instance in which Rumsfeld proved rather more gun shy. In early 2005, Rummy aborted an operation to capture senior al Qaeda members in Pakistan, possibly including Ayman al-Zawahiri, at the last minute; a Navy Seal team was reportedly already aboard a C-130 plane in Afghanistan for the mission:

Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.

Proof of rank hypocrisy? Not necessarily. Dispatching several hundred personnel by C-130 is a whole lot dicier than dropping a couple of dozen Seals by helicopter. Perhaps more important, U.S. relations with Pakistan were in a different place back in 2005. Army General Pervez Musharraf was running the country, and the Bush administration had a policy of keeping relations comfortable and largely outsourcing the hunt for al Qaeda in Pakistan to his army. In hindsight, that policy was probably misguided (as even the Bush team came to realize, belatedly). But it wasn’t unreasonable for Rumsfeld to worry that Pakistani anger over such a significant intrusion would derail the Bush White House’s approach.

But that brings us to a crucial point: Barack Obama has changed that policy, and probably for the better. In 2007, Obama gave a speech that Mitt Romney said made him sound like “Dr. Strangelove,” in which Obama vowed to attack al Qaeda targets in Pakistan if Islamabad wouldn’t do that for us. And Obama has followed through–not just with the Abbotabad raid but with a ferocious drone campaign, and also through a general attitude of impatience and assertiveness with the Pakistanis. So if Rumsfeld wants to call the bin Laden raid an easy call, he might be right, but only in part because of the number of troops involved. The other reason is that Obama abandoned George W. Bush’s failed approach towards Islamabad.