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How Will History View Obama’s Decision on Bin Laden?

May 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama traveled to New York City Thursday to place a wreath in honor of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and mark the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Jim Lehrer discusses the significance of President Obama's decision to carry out the raid with historians Beverly Gage and Michael Beschloss.
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JIM LEHRER: The nation’s top leaders paid tribute today to the victims of 9/11. The ceremonies came four days after the death of the man who ordered those attacks.

The celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s end turned to somber reflection this afternoon at Ground Zero in Manhattan. President Obama laid a wreath and said a prayer beneath the symbolic Survivor Tree. The ceremony honored the nearly 3,000 people who died there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then, the site was a vast smoking ruin, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers had collapsed after being hit by two airliners. Nearly 10 years later, huge fountains and reflecting pools mark the footprints where the towers stood and the new Freedom Tower is under construction.

Amid the rebuilding, the president met privately with 60 family members of 9/11 victims after today’s ceremony.

One was Jim Riches, who lost his son in the attacks.

JIM RICHES, father of Sept. 11 Victim: I just want to thank him, you know, hug him and thank him, shake his hand and say, you know, thanks. From father to father, thank you for — for doing this for me, taking care of the man that’s out there bragging and saying he is proud that he killed my son.

(APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Obama never mentioned bin Laden’s name earlier, as he met with fire and police units that suffered heavy casualties on 9/11.

Instead he said he hoped the outcome of Sunday’s raid in Pakistan brought some comfort.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What happened on Sunday, because of the courage of our military and the outstanding work of our intelligence, sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say. And our commitment to making sure that justice was done is something that transcended politics, transcended party.

It didn’t matter which administration it was in. It didn’t matter who was in charge. We were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act, that they received justice.

JIM LEHRER: It was a welcome sentiment at a firehouse that lost an entire shift of 15 firefighters when the towers fell.

MAN: We just wanted to tell him we thank him for what he did on Sunday. And all the troops and all, we want to let them know that we’re with them, you know, every step of the way, and thank — God bless them. Thank them. I mean, if it wasn’t for them, you know, we’d still be chasing this guy.

QUESTION: Is the burden a little easier today? Is the burden a little easier?

MAN: Yes. It’s bittersweet. You know, a lot of emotions come up.

JIM LEHRER: There were similar emotions outside the Pentagon, as Vice President Biden laid a wreath to the 184 people killed there on 9/11.

Meanwhile, there were new revisions to the story of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. News accounts today said only one of the five people killed was armed and fired any shots. According to the accounts, as Navy SEALs moved in, they were shot at by bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, who was in the guesthouse.

The SEALs fired back, and Kuwaiti was killed, along with a woman who was caught in the crossfire. The reports said the commandos were not fired on again as they moved into the main structure. Inside, they confronted and killed two other men, before arriving at bin Laden’s room.

White House officials earlier had described a longer, more intense firefight. There were also reports that the helicopter that crashed at the compound might be a previously unseen stealth model.

DANIEL GOURE, Lexington Institute: One of the things that really stands out is they have a little disk over the rotors, which is really designed both to baffle the sound and to deny radar signature.

JIM LEHRER: The Navy SEALs set the helicopter on fire before leaving but children in the neighborhood were seen with small pieces of the aircraft this week.

Back in this country, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said intelligence from the bin Laden raid gave no sign of imminent attacks by al-Qaida.

She spoke with the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez for “Destination: Casablanca” on the Hispanic Information and Telecommunication Network.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: There is nothing we have that would present a specific, credible, direct threat to the United States that is an imminent threat.

JIM LEHRER: But stepped-up security continued at sites around the country.

In the meantime, President Obama planned to thank some of the troops involved in the bin Laden operation. He will visit them tomorrow at Fort Campbell, Ky.

And late today, U.S. officials said information gleaned from bin Laden’s compound showed al-Qaida considered attacking trains in the United States. But according to the Associated Press there was no recent intelligence that shows that the plot was active.

And now to two historians, Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale University, and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss.

Michael, as a matter of history, will Barack Obama be known from now on as the man who got Osama bin Laden?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: I think he will, along with, presumably, a lot of other things, especially if he gets a second term.

But you can be sure that the Obama Presidential Library, whether it’s on the south side of Chicago or in Honolulu — these are the two contenders — will have a large remembrance of the day that President Obama did this.

And in real time, I think it’s important, because we have heard during the last couple of years that this was — from Obama’s critics, this was a professor so addicted to nuance that he couldn’t make a decisive move in foreign policy.

And someone known as little as Barack Obama before he became president, you feel as if you’re learning all sorts of new things about him. Go back to Sunday. This is a guy whose gut — who has got a lot of guts, who is willing to take a decision that, if it had gone badly, could have cost him a lot.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, do you agree this says more about President Obama than people knew before the other day?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: I do agree with that. I think it pushes back, as Michael was suggesting, against a narrative of indecisiveness, kind of weakness when it came to terrorism, when it came to military matters.

But I think it also is a narrative that hasn’t just dogged Obama, but has actually dogged Democrats for several decades at this point.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

BEVERLY GAGE: If you think back at least to the Iran hostage crisis in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter attempted a somewhat similar mission, it was a secret military strike mission. That case, it was to actually rescue the hostages. It wasn’t a mission of assassination.

And it turned out to be an absolute disaster. And the icons of that became the helicopter that went down in the desert before they even reached their target. And it became one of the defining moments of the Carter presidency. And I think it’s had ramifications for Democrats ever since.

So, it’s important for Obama, but it is also really important for the Democratic Party as a whole in pushing back against that image that dates at least to the 1970s.

JIM LEHRER: But the politics aside, political parties elements to this aside, Michael, use the Jimmy Carter example. He had guts. He made the decision to rescue the hostages.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He did.

JIM LEHRER: And it was — he’s not the one who brought the helicopters down. And yet he was blamed for the failure and was accused of all kinds of things…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There were accidents. And the result was, he didn’t get the hostages out. Had it worked, he probably would have been reelected in 1980, but, instead…

JIM LEHRER: And that would have been his…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That would have been decisive Carter. You know, this great masterstroke goes down in history. Instead, people connected this to high oil prices, gas lines, high inflation, frustration in Afghanistan, this kind of thing.

And so this is what these things oftentimes mean. Another example, Gerald Ford, in the wake of the Vietnam War, spring of 1975, America had just lost the war in Vietnam, first war we had lost. A Merchant Marine ship, the Mayaguez, American ship, was taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge.

Ford sent the Marines in. The Marines liberated the ship. The staff — the people who were on the ship all survived. Eighteen Marines were killed in the course of this, but this was seen as a great masterstroke for Gerald Ford, a more decisive leader than we thought.

And also — and there’s a resonance of this today — it raised American morale in the wake of the loss in Vietnam.

JIM LEHRER: So Beverly Gage, in many ways, these presidents make these decisions, gutsy or whatever you want to call them, but the people who have to carry them out are the ones who make it either work or not work, or providence and a lot of other things are involved, correct?

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s absolutely true.

I mean, Michael’s right that, in some sense, Jimmy Carter’s role ended when he made that decision, and it was the same decision whether the mission itself succeeded or failed. But of course the presidents, in the end, actually end up being the figureheads of these moments and are, rightly or wrongly, given a lot of responsibility for how the operation actually plays out.

I’m actually not sure that I agree with Michael that, had that mission succeeded in — in the Iran hostage case, that Jimmy Carter would have been re-elected. I think we actually have lots of examples of these kind of great moments of decisiveness, a bump in the polls, that in fact doesn’t end up changing electoral outcomes.

You think of something like Harry Truman in 1945, who’s seen as a weak president. People don’t have a lot of confidence in him. He makes the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. It’s this moment of horror on the one hand, but of real, you know, American dominance. People are impressed with American technology. Harry Truman is suddenly seen as this very decisive figure, in a way that he hadn’t been before. And he’s clobbered following year at the polls.

So, I don’t think that we can say, necessarily, that history is going to suggest that this makes it an easy road for Obama now. In fact, there’s a long time between now and the 2012 elections. I think it will certainly change the way historians write about Obama in 20 or 30 years, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the thing that changes how people vote in the upcoming election.

JIM LEHRER: Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Jimmy Carter point, what I really meant was not that the mini-drama of a hostage rescue would have helped Jimmy Carter, but the hostages would have been out. You wouldn’t have had that problem for Carter all the way through 1980, culminating in the election. Carter would have had a much bigger chance against Ronald Reagan.

And the other point I would like to make is that there is a general pattern here, as there oftentimes is in history. And that is that, since 1945, presidents have encouraged Americans to think that they’re responsible for almost everything…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: … you know, increase in prosperity, wars that we win, other things that you like, while at the same time, they’re not responsible for the things that you don’t like.

And one symptom of this is that, when there is a decision like this that really does rest on the performance of the SEALs this case, or other things that are beyond a president’s control, it’s the president who gets the credit or gets the blame. And perhaps we should be a little bit more modulated in giving presidents both.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Beverly Gage?

BEVERLY GAGE: I do agree.

But I think one thing that, again, the Carter example really underscores is just how much of a risk Obama took in authorizing this mission. So, it certainly could have gone either way. There are any number of things that could have gone wrong that he wouldn’t have been directly responsible for, sandstorms, for instance.

But, on the other hand, given that he knew the number of things that could have gone wrong, it was a huge risk for him to take in his presidency. And it’s going to be a risk that pays off. But how much it pays off, in the end, in terms of electoral success, we will have to wait and see.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I — I agree with Beverly.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But if the raid had gone badly, both of you agree that, no matter how — quote — “gutsy” his decision was, if the raid had gone badly, for any reason, it would have been an Obama — it would have been on Obama’s record, and he would have been blamed for it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Everything that people would be frustrated by in the Barack Obama administration would have been connected to this, and this would have been a symbol of that.

Barack Obama knew that. And that does show how much courage he had in making that decision.

JIM LEHRER: And, Beverly, I’m interested in your — your Truman analogy as well. Truman — as you say, Truman went out lowest in the polls in American history up to that point, and maybe since.

But he’s now considered one of the great presidents. In other words, many, many years later, you historians went back and said, oh, he wasn’t so bad after — after all.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s absolutely right.

And so, you know, with historians, I always say what is the impact going to be? I don’t know. Ask me in 30 years. Ask me in 40 years, and then we will really know what this moment means.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, Michael Beschloss, thank you very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Pleasure.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Jim.