Six myths about President Obama’s greatest foreign policy success:
• “The decision to launch the raid was a close call.”
Not really. The idea that U.S. President Barack Obama bucked the counsel of his key advisers in deciding to order the Navy SEAL assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, apparently arose from reports of the spirited discussions that the president entertained in the weeks before the raid. Some of the confusion can be traced back to the administration itself. Vice President Biden’s National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was quoted in a CNN report saying, “First, we (didn’t) know for sure bin Laden is there; the evidence (was) circumstantial. Second, most of his senior advisers recommended a different course of action.”
In fact, nearly all the principals favored sending in the SEALs at their final meeting on the topic, three days before the raid. The biggest exception was Vice President Joe Biden, who was the only one who urged the president not to attack the Abbottabad compound .. . yet. He wanted more time to make certain that bin Laden was, in fact, present. However, Obama had accepted months earlier that the chance the al Qaida chief was staying at the compound was essentially “50-50,” and that ordering the raid would mean accepting those odds.
Obama’s advisers did provide him viable alternatives to a direct military assault on the compound. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs James Cartwright favored launching a small missile fired from a drone at “The Pacer” — their term the tall man who was often seen walking back and forth within the compound walls, and who they suspected was bin Laden. This carried with it a greater risk of missing the target, but was much lower risk than sending a SEAL team into Pakistan.
But as the moment of truth neared, Obama’s advisers abandoned the idea of a drone strike. Gates changed his mind the morning after the final decision meeting on April 28 after conferring with two of his deputies, Michael Vickers and Michle Flournoy.
Support for launching the raid also went well beyond the principals, and included the CIA, National Counterterrorism Center officials and the National Security Council staff. In the end, Obama would have only been bucking his advisers if he had refused to launch the raid.
• “Obama called off the raid several times.”
Completely false. This rumor has no basis in fact, but is reported in Richard Mintner’s broadside against Obama published last summer, “Leading From Behind.” It is a claim that apparently appeals to those who view the president as a closet pacifist, but contradicts every account by the principals involved in planning the operation — many of whom I have interviewed personally. It also contradicts the timeline for mission preparation.
Adm. Bill McRaven, then the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) chief in charge of the raid, presented the president with a fully formed plan for the raid in March 2011, and pointed toward the end of April, the next moonless nights over Abbottabad, as the first optimal opportunity to launch. The raid took place on May 1.
• “The SEAL team engaged in a prolonged firefight during the raid.”