Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Yoda and the Politics of Killing OBL

As this Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you) winds down, it is appropriate to remember the signature commentary of the Jedi sage Yoda: “Do or do not; there is no ‘try.’”

I am pleased to say I heard a variation on this theme a few weeks ago when my Dean told me he was recommending me for promotion. He said some very nice things about my work, and, as is my wont, I stumbled in accepting praise. I mumbled something like “I try.” I doubt that I’ll ever forget his response: “Lots of people try; you succeed.”

Whether I deserved to be thus described isn’t the point. Rather, what happens in the real world and what happens in a George Lucas movie are alike in at least this respect: for things that matter, results are always more important than effort. I don’t want to listen to a violinist who strives mightily to play that concerto, to put in a placekicker who will take his best shot at kicking the game-winning field goal, or to entrust my life to a surgeon who does his best to remove that tumor. No, work ethic goes only so far. Success trumps effort, ten times out of ten.

There is a place for honest failure. All of us, even, possibly especially, the most accomplished, fail frequently. Indeed, the scale of one’s failures is often a determinant of one’s true worth. The violinist, the placekicker and the surgeon mentioned in the previous paragraph all know defeat. But they are skilled enough, confident enough, bold enough to attempt what others dare not. There is honor in that. Striving for greatness and coming up short is better than settling for mediocrity. But it doesn’t beat accomplishment. Do or do not.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon in relationship to the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden, specifically as it relates to the frenzied attempts by right-wing talking heads to try to claim that the (failed, criminal, unconstitutional) policies of the Bush administration were largely if not principally responsible for the success of the mission. To be fair, while most of the leading Republicans who actually hold elected office (Boehner, Cantor, even Rand Paul) cited Bush administration efforts to capture or kill bin Laden, they also expressed thanks to President Obama and his administration. Is this, as Representative Barney Frank suggests, “politicizing” the event? Sure, it is. But any sensible person sees the touch of desperation for what it is and moves on.

Of course, the real leadership of GOP—Limbaugh, Palin, Cheney, Rove, everybody at Fox News—sees President Obama’s administration as simply a vessel for the culmination of Bush-developed intelligence, rather like the ancient Greeks regarded the mother’s role in procreation as merely a receptacle for the seed of the true parent, the father. For this gaggle of zealots, it could only have been Bush-era policies which won the day. And when, initially, it appeared that water-boarding may have played a role in leading to a key early lead in determining OBL’s location, the loonies became downright giddy, crowing about how their torture techniques had paid real dividends. Subsequent reports, including a statement by Bush era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, denied these reports, only to have them re-surface today when current CIA Chief Leon Panetta acknowledged that part of the “mosaic” (to use Attorney General Holder’s term) that ultimately led to locating Osama bin Laden appears to have been achieved through torture.

So we have a proponent of waterboarding, who ought to be in a position to know, denying its efficacy (in this case, at least), and an opponent of waterboarding, who also ought to be in a position to know, asserting precisely that efficacy (again, in this particular instance). Jay Carney’s claim that “we don’t know” whether a particular piece of information was both achieved through waterboarding and vital evidence may be the first time in a generation that a presidential press secretary has told the absolute truth. What is clear is that 1). some useful information may have been gleaned using “enhanced interrogation” and 2). there’s no direct line from whatever information was thus gathered to this week’s raid, or that mission would have taken place months if not years ago.

None of the above, of course, changes whether torture—and waterboarding is torture, far from the “moral imperative” that Rep. Peter King would have us believe—is a good idea. It is not. No pragmatic argument overcomes the legal and ethical barriers, as Jack Marshall, among others, has pointed out.

There are, to be sure, some philosophical issues raised by the raid. Is it ever legitimate to send troops into a sovereign country, uninvited, to conduct a vigilante mission, even against the world’s poster boy for terrorism? Can information obtained by torture ever form the evidentiary foundation for such an operation? What was the effect—legal, ethical, or pragmatic—of bypassing the Pakistani government? But while these are legitimate concerns, they are topics for another day and/or another commentator.

What concerns me right now is the wisdom of Yoda. Do or do not. I made the point last time that President Obama deserves “a modicum” of the credit for this operation. Most of the success is attributable to intelligence operatives, military strategists, and of course to the SEALs who carried out the mission. But just as the quarterback gets too much of the credit for a win and too much of the blame for a loss, so is a Commander-in-Chief’s effectiveness often measured by the success of operations over which he has little direct influence. Barack Obama wasn’t responsible for the successful raid on OBL’s compound, any more than Jimmy Carter was to blame for the failure of the rescue mission in Iraq in 1980. But—and here is where Peter King is actually right (write this down; it doesn’t happen very often)—presidencies are often defined by whether such missions work or not. It isn’t fair, but it is the way of the world.

So what matters in these terms is quite simple: what was the result? It is clear that the many moments when President Bush downplayed the search for OBL were simultaneously sour grapes and a legitimate and truthful description of geopolitical reality: “concentrating on one man really indicates… that people don’t understand the scope of the mission” is no doubt true. But you can’t convince me that the Bush administration wouldn’t have strutted more than a little, as indeed they did, not altogether inappropriately, with respect to Saddam Hussein, had they succeeded in bringing bin Laden to ground.

There are, in other words, lots of reasons why Bush ought to be excused or reasonable arguments that Obama simply got lucky. No argument here. But Yoda’s scorebook looks like this:
Obama did.
Bush did not.
There is no “try.”

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