It was a very different Barack Obama who stood in the White House late Sunday to deliver the astounding and satisfying news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Or was it?
Obama was derided during the 2008 presidential campaign for saying he would be willing to go into Pakistan unilaterally to nab the hateful and hated leader of al Qaeda. The idea was naïve at best, diplomatically disastrous at worst, his opponents said. Obama’s calm tones, lack of swagger, and professed desire to repair relationships with the rest of the world—the Muslim world, in particular—were used as a weapon to portray him as weak, someone who would not possess the cool-headedness to destroy the most cold hearted of mass murderers. And yet, Obama, with the able help of U.S. intelligence and military minds and bodies, pulled it off brilliantly, and in a manner entirely keeping with the personage he offered during the campaign. [See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.]
For most of us, the mere fact of bin Laden’s death would be enough. But the way the operation unfolded was virtually perfect: bin Laden was hunted down by U.S. forces and shot in the head—not killed in an air strike or explosion, but in a manner in which we can presume that bin Laden, in his final moments, knew that it was American troops who would personally take his life. No U.S. troops were killed, and civilian casualties (except, possibly, for the unidentified woman bin Laden used as a human shield) avoided. His body was identified by DNA, preemptively silencing any "deathers" who would circulate rumors that it was all just a public relations stunt and a lie. Bin Laden’s body was disposed of at sea—to avert the need to find a country willing to bury him, and to avoid having his grave site used as a rallying spot for al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers. He was buried quickly, in Muslim tradition, averting criticism that the United States was being insensitive to the religion. Pakistan, which Obama said cooperated in the mission, but which apparently did not know the details of it until it was done, has not accused the United States of any invasion of sovereignty. [See a transcript of Obama's speech on bin Laden death.]
In his White House address, the serious-faced president avoided showing any glee over bin Laden’s death, although he surely was as happy about it as the rest of America. Nor did he take a cheap political victory lap, declaring "mission accomplished" against terrorism; in fact, the president rightly warned, the nation needs to be on alert for any retaliatory attacks. He reiterated that the United States is not at war with Islam, but with terrorism. There was no comment, implicit or otherwise, that he had managed to achieve what former President Bush had failed to do—to get bin Laden. Obama had the good manners to call Bush personally to tell him of the feat, and Bush responded in his statement with grace.
Obama lacks Bush’s aggressive style and provocative rhetoric. That does not mean he is weak or was less determined to get bin Laden. And while the president had not mentioned bin Laden much in public recently, that does not mean the administration wasn’t working on it. Similarly, while the Bush administration did not manage to kill or capture bin Laden, we have no way of knowing how many major attacks the previous administration defused. [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]
Obama on Sunday night might have shown some of his critics a side they didn’t think existed, that of a determined commander in chief. But that was exactly the approach Obama presented during the campaign. It was just that his opponents didn’t think he could pull it off. He did—and the fact that Obama is not hanging a "Mission Accomplished" banner across the East Room makes the feat even more impressive.