Last week, the Obama campaign released a video starring Bill Clinton, in which he extolled the president’s decision to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden one year ago. In the video, Clinton hypothesized: “Suppose the Navy Seals had gone in there, and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for [Obama].” According to the former president, Obama’s decision was “the harder and more honorable path.”
Obama’s authorization of the bin Laden raid was indeed risky: based on incomplete information (such as the lack of definitive proof that the Al Qaeda leader was in the Abbotabad compound) and objections from a split cabinet. Even if the operation had failed or cost American lives, many analysts and commentators—including Clinton—exaggerate the likely political costs to the president.
Throughout recent history, U.S. presidents have authorized limited military operations that were mixed successes or outright failures. In most instances, the president neither suffered a noticeable decline in public support nor faced sustained criticism among elite observers for the decision. Policymakers and pundits generally refrain from criticizing presidents, military commanders, and the armed forces for failed operations.
In perhaps the riskiest military misison authorized by a U.S. president, Jimmy Carter ordered the unsuccessful hostage rescue operation in Iran (Desert One) on April 24–25, 1980, which resulted in eight U.S. soldiers killed and no hostages freed. In the initial stages of planning, the Delta Force commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, admitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “the probability of success is zero and the risks are high.” According to a Newsweek article on June 30, 1980, the Pentagon estimated that as many as fifteen of the fifty-three hostages as well as thirty of the U.S. special operation forces would be killed or injured in a successful operation.
There is no evidence, however, that Carter’s decision-making negatively impacted the mission. An internal review conducted by the Pentagon found that “the decision process during planning and the command and control organization during execution of the Iran hostage rescue mission afforded clear lines of authority from the President to the appropriate echelon,” and, “the command and control arrangements at the higher echelons from the NCA [the President and Secretary of Defense] through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to [Combined Joint Task Force] were ideal.”
Although Carter was aware of the potential costs of the rescue attempt, he believed, according to a senior adviser, “Ending the crisis—once and for all—became the major factor in the president’s decision-making.” And the American public agreed: two-thirds approved of Carter’s decision to authorize the ill-fated mission. Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush was the most outspoken supporter: “I unequivocally support the president—no ifs, ands, or buts…He made a difficult, courageous decision.” Afterward, the president’s approval ratings, previously plummeting, actually stabilized—until he was easily defeated by Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan authorized the December 4, 1983, air raid on Syrian air defenses in Lebanon, which was both a military and political disaster. Two of the U.S. planes were shot down by either anti-aircraft rounds or surface-to-air missiles; one pilot was killed, another was captured by Syrian forces, and another parachuted safely into the Mediterranean Sea. (The hostage, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, Jr., was held and interrogated in a Syrian prison for thirty days.) Furthermore, although the Pentagon claimed the airstrikes were “very successful and achieved our objective, which was to prevent, through a measured response, repetition of the attacks on our reconnaissance aircraft,” Syrian forces continued to target U.S. reconnaissance flights.
Many policymakers opposed the open-ended deployment of Marines to Lebanon, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress refrained from criticizing the botched air raid. Senator Charles Percy, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned, "We’re not going to be driven out by terrorism." Meanwhile, as the economy recovered, Reagan’s approval ratings improved fifteen points in 1984.
George W. Bush authorized the February 16, 2001, airstrikes against five Iraqi air defense sites, located just north of the southern no-fly zone. The raid was a mixed success, as all but two of the twenty-eight Joint Stand-Off Weapons missed their targets due to a programming error. The intensity and scope of the strikes, revealed on CNN, caught President Bush off guard and upstaged his first international visit. The Joint Staff’s director of operations, Vice Admiral Scott Fry, later admitted to me that the bombing “was a mess and set the tone for much of the bad blood between Rumsfeld and the military.”
Perhaps because the targets were considered part of the Iraqi no-fly zones—although they were not, and required explicit presidential authorization—the strikes went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media and Bush’s approval ratings jumped by five points.
The most interesting aspect of Clinton’s campaign appearance is that he knows, from his own experience, that presidents are granted significant latitude in the use of limited force. Clinton authorized the August 20, 1998, cruise missile strikes against the El-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, and al-Qaeda’s Zhawar Kili complex in Khost, Afghanistan. Operation Infinite Reach was a failure: El-Shifa had no demonstrated connection to al-Qaeda, the CIA erroneously assumed that factory produced VX nerve gas; and bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were not killed at Zhawar Kili.
The unsuccessful operation received the Washington Post headline: “Tough Response Appeals to Clinton Critics.” Senate majority leader Trent Lott commented, "Our response appears to be appropriate and just," while House speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “I think the president did exactly the right thing.” Clinton’s approval ratings, already a high 65 percent, only improved over the next seven months.
In the face of emerging or persistent foreign policy challenges, policymakers and pundits want presidents to “do something,” and support such decisiveness—even if, in retrospect, it was ill-advised or unsuccessful. If the special operations raid to kill Osama bin Laden had failed, history shows that Obama would not have faced personal attacks for the effort (unless there was clear evidence of micromanagement). And, of course, it would not be included in the campaign’s highlight reel.