Sunday, May 8, 2011

President Obama: The Good Public Servant

The year 2011 has certainly been eventful. The "Arab Spring" kicked off in February and after the relatively short and bloodless shedding of old regimes and leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, it has now entered a protracted phase of bloodshed and stalemate in Libya, Yemen and more recently in Syria. This was followed in March by the earthquake and Tsunami that rocked Japan, leaving thousands dead and making a smoldering wreck of the nuclear plant in Fukushima that continues to emit radioactive poisons into the environment. In contrast to the still blazing events in the Middle East and Japan, the American military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden was over in less than one hour and besides Bin Laden, cost the lives of only four other people. No Americans were killed. A few hours later, Bin Laden's body was buried at sea.
Criticism has since made the rounds that the Al-Qaida leader should have been taken alive and put on trial. This criticism is valid, especially in light of politicians and leaders --- including President Obama himself --- who stated that justice had been served. This is not the case since justice, in the sense that we understand it in the Western world, would have demanded a proper trial. The point is also well taken that the powers waging the War on Terrorism --- with the United States at the forefront --- have been hard tasked to justify actions that seem to contradict the very principles they are fighting for. Opting for assassination instead of an open and fair trial also seems to speak against the ideals and principles of democracy. Then there is the matter of the value Bin Laden would have had as a definitive source that could have helped put to rest, once and for all, conspiracy theories that make the US government the primary suspect in the 9/11 attacks.
All these considerations are now academic. But one aspect the event concretely serves to highlight is President Obama the conscientious public servant, especially in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush. At best, President Bush was a poor to indifferent public servant. He and his Administration, particularly Condoleeza Rice, had been warned with ample and solid intelligence about the dangers presented by Al-Qaida under Osama Bin Laden but they chose to ignore this with tragic consequences. President Obama, however, as a conscientious public servant, vowed to do everything in his powers to make sure another 9/11 did not repeat itself under his watch. This meant, for him, the elimination, one way or another, of Osama Bin Laden. This was one thing that President Obama immediately grasped and never let go of despite the fact that his predecessor and many experts were downplaying the importance of Osama Bin Laden. President Obama never relented from the position that Bin Laden still presented a serious threat and that beyond being a mere figurehead and an enduring source of inspiration for future attacks, he was biding his time somewhere, waiting for a turn in the fortunes of war to rebuild and reactivate his terror network. Robert Fisk and other pundits have correctly pointed out that the death of Osama Bin Laden will not mean the end of the War against Terrorism but President Obama was certainly more prescient in the statement that the world will be a safer place without him because the fact remains that, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Osama Bin Laden was behind the most deadly terrorist attack on US soil. In contrast to President Bush, President Obama took this seriously and dealt with it decisively.
Obama detractors will no doubt put a cynical spin on the event: The killing was meant to present the world with a fait accompli so there would be no protracted, agonizing trial overshadowing the incumbent’s election year, a trial that may have resulted in Bin Laden’s acquittal or a dissatisfactory sentencing if found guilty, or a trial that may have brought incriminating evidence or allegations of US complicity in the 9/11 attacks to light. But this cynicism is inconsistent with President Obama the conscientious public servant. It was an extremely risky operation that could easily have ended in disaster and tragedy for all involved. It was a miracle that no US lives were lost but more so that no uninvolved civilians were killed. President Obama opted to go forward with the operation based on CIA evidence of only a 60 to 80 percent likelihood that Bin Laden was in the compound in Abbotobad and since it was in a highly populated area, the use of missile or drone attack was out of the question. Despite Pakistan’s anger over violated sovereignty, Pakistanis should consider the fact that the US successfully avoided human and material loss in eliminating a known terrorist their government was in all likelihood harboring when it had no need or motivation to do so. In ignoring the Bin Laden threat until it was too late, in failing to capture or kill him in subsequent years, and then in playing down Bin Laden’s importance as a continuing threat, President Bush had all his political bases covered: If he had managed to kill or capture Bin Laden, which wasn’t the case, it would have been to his everlasting credit. In not killing or capturing public enemy number one who, Bush and his Administration were at pains to explain to the public, wasn’t all that important anyway, his political base was given no reason to castigate the incumbent at the ballot box, which also turned out to be the case. And we the public can only speculate and wonder if President Bush throughout his presidency did in fact choose to ignore or dismiss similar intelligence regarding the whereabouts of Bin Laden --- intelligence that President Obama so effectively made use of --- and fail to act to kill or capture him because it presented too high a political risk to him personally despite the peril it presented to us, the public. This scenario is consistent with President Bush the clever politician but poor public servant who didn’t particularly care about the public welfare. For President Obama, the event was consistent with him as the conscientious public servant that was willing to risk his political career to do what was right. If anybody doubts this, we need not look further than that day in April, 1980 when the military operation to rescue American hostages in Iran launched by President Carter ended in fiasco and tragedy and all but ended President Carter’s bid for reelection a few months later.

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