Aftermath can be heck.
The White House’s brilliant conceptualization and execution of the plan to bring Osama bin Laden to justice has, in the last 48 hours, been complicated by mistakes.
No one can question the heroism of the US military, the doggedness of the intelligence community, or the cojones of the President in making the call. But the administration has since made real errors, some with political costs, some with substantive costs, and some with both.
The major errors so far:
1. Not getting its story straight: Was bin Laden armed or not? What woman served as a human shield? Who actually was killed beyond the main target? The administration deserves mountains of credit for its painstaking, conspicuous effort to brief the world on the mission, knowing a lot of information would have to be held back to protect sources, operatives, methods, and sensitive data. Which makes the carelessness of the errors somewhat surprising. The costs: the media coverage sours, the President’s opponents (especially on talk radio) go crazy, other details of the mission unfairly get called into question, and the wild theories of global enemies and conspiracy seekers get a foothold.
2. Not giving George W. Bush enough credit for helping bring bin Laden to justice: Even if the White House believes the previous occupant had nothing to do with OBL’s ultimate demise, it would have been better for national unity and Obama’s own political fortunes if he had gone out of his way to thank 43. His invitation to Bush to join the event Thursday at Ground Zero (an offer declined) was the right idea, but belated.
3. Letting the photo debate get out of control: The decision about whether to release images of a dead bin Laden was not an easy one. But the administration’s conflicting statements and public agonizing before the President’s plan to withhold the images created a distraction. The White House stumbled by coming up against one of Washington’s iron rules: when something becomes famous inside the Beltway for not being released, the pressure from the media to release it becomes unrelenting. The president’s choice will not end the controversy.
4. Letting the debate about the war in Afghanistan get out of control: There are signs that some of the president’s advisers are looking to scale back the commitment in Afghanistan sooner rather than later. But by failing to go on the offensive in defining and defending whatever policy the President wants to pursue, the White House has allowed those pressing for an end of the war to use bin Laden’s death as rhetorical leverage.
5. Letting the debate about Pakistan get out of control: The congressional and media demand for a radical change in America’s relationship with Pakistan is burning like wildfire. The administration knows that a shift in policy is complicated and compromising, and not necessarily in the United States’ interest. Stoking the problem: executive branch officials, publicly and privately, are expressing incredulity that the Pakistanis were unaware bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in their country. There should be and will be a debate about all this, but the administration’s actions and inactions is making it less likely it will be on their terms.