There were several terrible moments for President Obama as he sat in the White House situation room on Sunday monitoring in real time the audacious raid by Navy SEALs on a compound in Abbottabad, a wealthy Pakistani garrison town just north of Islamabad where Americans hoped that Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Among the most tense, one administration official recounted, came when one of the four high-speed, low-flying helicopters transporting the elite SEAL Team Six to their target suffered what the White House called a "flight control issue," endured a "hard landing" and had to be destroyed. The mechanical failure evoked memories of an infamous helicopter disaster — President Jimmy Carter's failed rescue mission of American diplomats being held hostage in the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran back in 1980. The event contributed to Carter losing a second term in office.
As Obama had weighed the various "COAs" — "courses of action," as counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan called the various strike plans under consideration — the possibility of such a helicopter malfunction was among the contingencies the president considered. Some of his advisers had opposed a "boots on the ground" covert helicopter raid precisely because it was potentially so much riskier than a "stand-off" strike on the compound by missiles from land-based launchers or Predator drones.
But those who favored the covert raid countered that, though riskier, it was far more likely than a drone strike to result in the capture, dead or alive, of the "HVT" — "high value target" — living inside the vast, heavily fortified house in this relatively wealthy town filled with military officers just north of the capital.
Not for the first time, President Obama chose the riskier path. And thanks to his own audacity, coupled with the hard, quiet work of often anonymous men and women during earlier administrations, he has achieved what two predecessors tried, but could not do. Obama has not only gotten justice for the nearly 3,000 Americans whom bin Laden and his gang killed on Sept. 11 and in earlier attacks, he has obtained DNA proof of bin Laden's identity, evidence that would most likely have been blown to smithereens by the safer, less ambitious Predator course.
The decision was vintage Obama — an enigmatic president, a strange mélange of caution and audacity, of mushiness and steel. He speaks eloquently about the need for compassion, but has no qualms about killing, as his decision to more than double Predator strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest. He preaches the need for transparency, but runs a secretive White House. His aides say he favors "leading from behind," but he demands the ouster of America's dictator ally in Egypt and transforms a humanitarian rescue mission of civilians in Benghazi into a campaign to oust Moammar Gadhafi, the region's longest-reigning dictator. He speaks of unity, but his policies divide the nation and often offend both supporters and critics alike. He is a bundle of contradictions.
But today, he is a hero — for many Republicans as well as Democrats, and deservedly so.
To be sure, he has benefitted from the mistakes that dogged his predecessors and their course corrections — intelligence communications failures, turf wars and overreliance on technology at the expense of "humint," or human intelligence, to name but a few. But this triumph in the war against Islamic terrorism — a foe he still refuses to name — cannot and should not be denied.
"Many of us said that his capture 'didn't matter' or that is wasn't 'operationally significant,' " said Michael R. Fenzel, an Army colonel who served on the National Security Council staff in the White House through the attacks on 9/11 and has since served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this, he added, "was a way of coping with our disappointment and inability to track him down."
While Osama bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda lives on. So, too, do al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Morocco; Al Shabaab in Somalia; Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan; and other twisted little children of the militant Islamic mothership.
But however great the challenges ahead for Obama, as Col. Fenzel says, "the events of May 1st will not soon be erased from our national memory."