As a fuller picture emerges of the months and days leading up to the dramatic capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, Americans have been afforded a rare opportunity to see and judge presidential leadership in real time. And this peek into the Oval Office and Situation Room reveals that when Barack Obama faced his most difficult “leadership moment,” he displayed the resolve and courage one wants in a president.
America is safer for it. Not safe, but safer, and that may be all one can ask in these perilous times.
The endless academic debate about whether Obama is an idealist or a realist on foreign policy misses the point. A good president needs to be both. A president “has to have a big view of where America should go, but also has to be strategic in thought and decisive in action,” says Michael Useem, who specializes in the study of leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The great figures of history, Useem reminds us, combined that big view with the ability and confidence to execute well, “to think as an idealist and a pragmatist at the same time.”
Obama made capturing bin Laden his top priority upon assuming office and, it seems, he never lost his commitment or his patience. Still, the true test was how, and when. For anyone familiar with President Carter’s failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages and, later, the bungled exploits of “Black Hawk Down,” the risks of doing a surgical strike were enormous. The more convenient plan was to bomb the million-dollar compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding. But the president nixed the idea for all the right reasons: The rubble from a bomb may destroy the necessary evidence, and it would certainly result in a greater number of civilian casualties. So Obama ordered the riskiest operation — an assault from the air — but one that had the best chance of catching the culprit while limiting fatalities.
“It’s a go,” he told his aides.
The men and women who conducted the intelligence and diplomacy that led to that moment, the Navy SEALS who bravely executed their orders, all deserve credit and praise. But ultimately, if the mission failed, Obama would take the blame, and rightly so. That it succeeded should put to rest any question of whether this man is fit to serve. “We learned a lot about him,” Useem says. Yes, we did.